How squatters became legal owners of impressive Cornish seaside home

Can it really be easy to move in and take ownership of a property?

Updated: 
The collective a few years ago

A group of squatters have become the legal owners of a six-bedroom house with a stunning view in Cornwall. The squatters (pictured a few years back) first moved in 13 years ago, and despite initially trying to get rid of them, the legal owners were persuaded to let them stay - because they improved it.

It sounds ridiculously easy. If a group of squatters can be handed the keys so easily, surely we should all be heading for the Cornish coast to lay claim to a stunning property overlooking the water. However, as ever, the devil is in the detail.

For a start, the property was hardly highly desirable from the outset. The view is an incredible one, on the Pendennis headland in Falmouth. However, while you're admiring the view, you have to overlook the fact you're standing next to a sewerage plant.

The location of the property meant that South West Water had been forced to buy it, and because they couldn't think of anything to do with it, they had boarded it up and left it empty and decaying. The group, known as the Spiral Collective Housing Co-operative, spotted it in 2003, saw its potential as a gathering place for artists and creative entrepreneurs, and decided to move in.

Taking ownership

South West Water were initially very unhappy with the new development, and started action to get rid of the squatters.

However, the North Devon Journal reported that things turned a corner for the group when representatives of South West Water arrived to evict them. They realised that they were repairing the property, and were working on the roof. They decided that it was better that the group stay and keep the property in a good state of repair than let it fall down.

A few months later the Daily Mail reported that the group agreed to pay £800 a month in rent, and all the while they continued to renovate the property, spending £15,000 on replumbing and rewiring it, replacing all the windows and chimneys, and repainting every room.

The latest step was the co-operative getting a mortgage for £300,000 and buying the property, so they are now the legal owners. The adults living in the property pay rent to the co-operative to cover the mortgage payment.

The group has seen quite a turnover over the years, and of the nine adults living in the property, only one member of the original group remains. He told the Mail that he didn't mind living next to the plant - and that it there were: "lots of people who live next to railway lines and that's a bigger problem."

Could we see this happen again?

This is a very specific example, and one where the owners and the collective worked together for a decade. However, it is still technically possible for someone to squat in a property, and then claim ownership.

Technically, squatters can take over residential property, by moving in without permission, living there unchallenged for 10 years (12 years if it's not registered with Land Registry), and acting as the owner for the entire period. They can then apply for what is known as 'adverse possession'.

However, the process is deliberately made difficult - in order to protect property owners.

If the owner of the property doesn't want a squatter there, they can get an interim possession order to get them out within 28 days - then make a claim for possession, which will see them evicted.

If the squatters don't comply, the repercussions can be enormous. Squatting actually became illegal in 2011, so it is now a criminal offence to squat in residential property, and can lead to a six month jail sentence.

Even if the squatters are left alone for 10 or 12 years and apply for 'adverse possession', the owner can block it. If the property is registered with Land Registry, the owner has 65 days to object - and if they have a valid objection the application will be refused. They then have two years to take action to get rid of the squatters - or they can apply again.

If the property is unregistered, the owner can still object, but the Land Registry will take a less harsh line, and will try to get everyone to agree to a compromise. If none can be reached, there will be a tribunal to decide who owns the property.

Quirky properties

Quirky properties