ORGANISED gangs are helping squatters get a foothold on the Costa del Sol, taking advantage of the surge of empty holiday homes in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
Calculated crooks are taking advantage of lapse laws to break into the empty properties, change the locks and sell the keys on for up to €2000, one lawyer told the Olive Press.
Homeowners are left with little legal recourse and face months – even years – of gruelling legal bills and delays as they battle to reclaim their homes from the courts.
As the threat of COVID-19 continues to keep hundreds of thousands of holiday homeowners abroad, criminals have become highly organised, taking over empty properties and offering them at cut price to squatters.
In some cases, the new unsuspecting tenants may not even know they are squatting, believing that they are taking over legitimate rental contracts.
And worse of all, Spain makes it near impossible for owners to quickly and easily force out the squatters, known as ‘okupas’ in Spanish.
For under current Spanish law they are protected by extensive rights of possession when properties are not lived in full time.
Homeowners that complain to police within the first 48 hours of the squatters moving have the strongest possible chance of reclaiming their home. But left any later and peeved off property owners are tied up in red tape for months on end.
Leading agent Adam Neale, of Terra Meridiana, in Estepona, said: “I have had a lot of people contact me with distressing stories over the last few weeks alone.
“It is definitely on the rise and it is high time it was dealt with.
“The law is toothless and it needs to be solved sooner than later. These poor people through no fault of their own are having their homes repossessed.
“At one home we look after in Estepona, we got a call from the alarm company and arrived to find a Spanish man in a suit had broken in.
“He looked very professional and when we confronted him he said he was the owner, which we obviously knew was not true. He was extremely obnoxious and clearly knew the law. I told him we had him breaking in on camera and the police would be arriving shortly and he eventually sauntered out.”
But while they were lucky on this occasion, other owners have been less lucky at the Balcones de Estepona urbanisation, as well as in nearby Marina de Casares, where various homes have been squatted.
Meanwhile one leading British interior design company boss found his home recently squatted in Marbella, when thieves got access to the key-code password to his urbanisation.
“The police and the authorities simply do not care,” explains the President of another Marbella community of owners, which has seen at least three homes squatted.
Sabine Kold, who is in charge of the Guadalmina urbanisation, continued. “This gang boss arrived last year and tried to occupy around 25 homes, managing to succeed three times.”
She described him as ‘very well connected’ and driving around in a top of the range Mercedes, picking houses at will…always looking for the biggest ones with a pool.
“Next, he swoops in, changes the lock and gives people on the keys on a Friday or Saturday when he knows lawyers and police are not working.
“It is all incredibly calculated and frightening. Once we found him sitting inside a house with the TV on, drinking a beer and with the alarm station knocked off the wall and under the sofa.
“We feel helpless because he could be very dangerous. Everyone is scared, it is a very frightening situation, especially because so many homes are lying empty due to COVID.”
With three families already squatting in the urbanisation, Sabine fears the gangs will become bolder and bolder and as the likely winter of discontent takes a grip many more will move in.
The main problem, she insists, is the lack of consequences for squatters.
“Currently squatting is not a criminal act, there is no punishment for those that do it, even though they ruin lives.”
She also insists owners need to wise up about what to say if they find their home targeted by squatters.
“The first problem is that owners sadly say the wrong things. If you call up and tell the police that it is your second home they won’t help you.
“Unless it is your first residency they will simply not act.
“The second problem is that the neighbours are not well connected and in touch with one another. You have one who only comes out in winter, another who only comes out in summer and there just isn’t enough communication between homeowners to protect the community from squatters.”
Sabine, a German expat who has lived on the Costa del Sol for 20 years, said the only way to tackle the issue is to form a neighbourhood watch group and patrol the streets tirelessly to make sure gangs couldn’t strike.
Indeed, she explained that guarding the homes in Guadalmina had ‘become a full time job’ and the situation has deteriorated dramatically following the coronavirus outbreak.
Lawyer Diego Echevarria, based in nearby Marbella, confirmed the problem was getting worse.
He told the Olive Press that squatters have become far more sophisticated in recent years, with websites even offering advice on how best to take over a property.
He said: “The squatters know all the tricks, what to say, how to act, what they need to do to delay matters and make the process drag on for longer.
“For example, if the squatters have children the state will make it impossible to evict them because they say the children must have somewhere to live.
“Indeed, if the police turn up to find a family with kids inside we know it will take twice as long to get them evicted.”
Echevarria, a specialist in property law, from Madrid, added that the ‘legal system gives a lot of guarantees to the squatters’ and that eviction can be a real headache for homeowners, even those who act quickly.
“Sadly there is no quick procedure to get them out of your house. You need to go to the court and prove you are the owner, you need to have the title deeds with you. And of course, there is a huge backlog of these cases.”
And it is only getting worse. Currently, Echevarria has three clients locked in legal battles with squatters.
“I have a client in Marbella, another in Estepona and a third inland,” he said. “In the past squatters used to target abandoned buildings but after the economic crash, they went for properties repossessed by the bank.
“Now with COVID they are targeting second homes as well.
“They don’t care, they will target anywhere and anyone, selling keys to places for €2000.”
He called the current system ‘hugely concerning’ and blamed Spain’s current government for giving squatters too many rights.
“The problem is the government is not willing to change anything in the law and they are more or less determined to support people who occupy these homes.
“Local town halls or regions can maybe implement tighter restrictions,” he said. “But at the end of the day the law needs to be changed at a national level…And it has to be done with a matter of urgency.”
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