One of the toughest crimes committed against landlords is tenants setting up cannabis farms in their rented property. Cannabis plants require a temperature of between 24 and 30 degrees Celsius, and 16-20 hours of regular light for optimum growth, so these criminals will rip out fittings and furnishings, make holes in walls and ceilings, and illegally reconfigure electrical systems in order to maximise their crop size – all of which can cause tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. Worse still, because of the huge fire risk that comes from illegal electrical wiring, the whole property could go up in smoke.
And, according to Crimestoppers, cannabis farms have an impact on the wider neighbourhood, as rival gangs and other criminals may break in to steal crops and equipment, which frequently results in violence. In addition, they are often involved in human trafficking – those growing and dealing the cannabis may have been forced into doing so to pay off debt. So, as well as being illegal and potentially incredibly damaging financially to you as a landlord, cannabis farms also cause misery to countless other people.
Operation Mille: Police crackdown on cannabis farms this year
This June, police forces from across the UK took part in Operation Mille, the biggest ever crackdown on illegal cannabis farms in Britain, in which they raided more than a thousand premises in England and Wales. In that one month alone, 200,000 plants worth £130m were seized and 1,000 suspects were arrested, of which more than 450 were later charged.
While cannabis farms have been found in many different types of premises, including commercial properties, agricultural farms, industrial warehouses, pubs, underground containers - even dog kennels! - domestic dwellings are the preferred location for large-scale cannabis cultivation, according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council. And the Merseyside Police Cannabis Dismantling Team, which was receiving an average of four reports of cannabis farms a day in 2018, confirms that most of the buildings they are called out to are residential properties.
At the same time, police forces in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Avon and Somerset, Devon and Cornwall have been working together on Operation Scorpion, to help drive drugs off the streets in the South-West of England. The first phase was carried out in March last year and the second phase in July this year, and they are now calling on landlords, letting agents and housing companies to join the fight against cannabis factories in rented properties by being extra vigilant.
How to tell if your property is being used as a cannabis farm
Here are some of the main signs that a tenant may be using or intending to use a property as a cannabis farm:
- They offer to pay six to twelve months’ rent up front, often in cash
- They ask for the tenancy to begin immediately and try to suggest that referencing and a check-in inventory aren’t necessary
- They request complete privacy
- They repeatedly make excuses when you or your agent try to arrange periodical inspections or simply ignore any attempt at contact
- Windows and curtains are never open
- Light sources can be seen 24/7 – the property is never completely in darkness
- Snow and frost on the roof melt more quickly than on neighbouring properties
- Visitors come and go at all times of the day and night
What happens if a tenant is caught growing cannabis?
Under section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is illegal to allow a property you own to be used for the growing or supply of cannabis, so if you have any suspicion that your tenants might have set up a cannabis farm, report it to the police immediately. Production and possession of cannabis with the intent to supply is a criminal offence that can result in up to 14 years in prison and an unlimited fine – and landlords and agents who are aware of this kind of illegal activity and fail to report suspicions can be held liable and face the same penalties.
How to protect yourself and your property
The reality is that if the proper checks are made on an applicant before the tenancy is granted and the property is managed professionally, there’s simply no opportunity for this kind of criminal activity to be established. If tenants are able to set up a cannabis farm, that means the landlord or agent has failed to act properly.
Here are the steps that should ensure your property doesn’t become a hive of criminal activity:
- Thorough referencing and credit checks. Having a robust referencing process is key to ensuring a prospective tenant does not have any criminal convictions, is who they say they are and has a regular source of income that enables them to pay the rent. If you are self-managing and have any doubts at the referencing stage about their suitability as a tenant, then we’d suggest you don’t proceed. If you do, it may be wise to ask them for a guarantor for the tenancy, or let us help you with your tenant referencing.
- Insist on rent being paid monthly via a standing order or manual bank transfer. All your rental income should be clearly recorded and if a tenant is able to make large payments to you in cash, that’s generally a red flag. As a result, we ask tenants to pay monthly from their personal bank account.
- Make periodical inspections. These should be carried out every 4-6 months in the first year and then at least annually thereafter, and it’s worth checking in with your tenant now and again – or making sure your agent does - to make sure everything is okay. Our experience is that if a tenant has nothing to hide, there shouldn’t be a problem arranging inspections – and if applicants know that you carry out regular property inspections they will probably decide to rent elsewhere. In addition to checking the property itself, make sure that the people living in the property are the same ones named on the tenancy agreement.
- Have a professionally qualified letting agent let manage the property on your behalf. Not only will a professional agent have robust tenant qualification and property management processes in place, but if there is criminal activity in the property, which you can prove has been enabled by their failure to comply with their obligations as your agent, you should be able to pursue them for damages.
- Take out insurance cover for malicious damage caused by tenants. This is not always included in a standard landlord insurance policy, so you will have to request it as an add-on. Importantly, make sure you know the financial limit because it’s unlikely to cover the full cost of repairing the kind of damage inflicted by cannabis farms. Nevertheless, insurance can at least give you some protection. Note that a condition of cover will normally be that landlords – or an agent - do proper referencing and carry out regular inspections. It's important to check with your insurance provider or broker if they cover you for illegal activity on your property. If you would like to speak to our expert landlord insurance partner 'First2Protect' about the insurance coverage they can offer our landlords, you can request a callback here.
Of course, if we let and manage your property, you can be confident that reference checks, rent collection and periodical inspections are all carried out thoroughly and professionally. And if you have any questions or are self-manage and would like to discuss our service, just get in touch with your local Reeds Rains branch – we’re always here to help.