Squatters in Spain – the problem of adverse possession

Squatters in Spain, known as Okupas in Spanish, are a serious threat to property owners in a country where the forces of law and order seem to be more on the side of squatters than of owners, especially in areas where squatters enjoy high-level political support.

Squatters / okupas in Spain
A building occupied by squatters / okupas in Barcelona. When squatters move in, everything else goes downhill.

Squatters are a bigger risk to private property rights in Spain than anywhere else

The problem of adverse possession, more commonly known as squatting, is much more serious in Spain than anywhere else in Europe, and it’s getting worse each year. 

According to data from the Spanish Home Office, the number of cases of adverse possession has doubled since 2016, and increased 20% between 2018 and 2019.

squatter okupa numbers in Spain
New cases of squatting reported to the police. (Source: Spanish Home Office)

There were 12,214 cases of squatting reported to the police in 2018, but many, perhaps most owners, who find their homes occupied by squatters, don’t report it to the police, and elect to go down extra-judicial routes, because it is so difficult and expensive to evict squatters legally in Spain.

How many homes in Spain are currently occupied by squatters? The estimate is between 90,000 and 100,000, according to Spanish press reports

By comparison, there were an estimated 20,000 cases of squatters in the UK for latest figures available a few years back (Wikipedia), and the UK is a country with a significantly bigger housing stock and population. Though reliable figures for international comparisons are hard to come by, it’s clear that the risk to owners of property in Spain is much higher than in other European countries.

Why is the problem of squatting so bad in Spain?

There are various factors that make squatting such a big problem in Spain, including:

  • A lack of social housing
  • A romanticised, counter-culture history of squatting driven by well-off kids playing the anti-establishment game, especially in cities like Barcelona
  • Poorly drafted / ambiguous laws that discourage firm action by front line law enforcement and courts
  • A slow and inefficient legal system that squatters know how to exploit
  • Powerful political support, in some areas, for squatter movements, and housing activists that lobby for squatter rights

Thanks to its political and legal system, Spain is a squatter’s paradise, and foreigner owners of second-homes on the coast, in particular, are a soft touch for mafias using squatters to extort payments out of home owners.

The Olive Press recently published an opinion piece saying that the Spanish authorities must do more than diddly-squat about the rise of okupas, which just reflects the level of frustration people feel about this problem. But although the Spanish squatter problem has been brewing for years, the current Government, a coalition that includes the squatter-friendly hard-left party Podemos, is unlikely to do anything about it. 

The Spanish system protects squatters over property owners

This is how the system works against you as a property owner in Spain, and favours squatters, especially the mafias who use squatters to exploit the system.

If you own a holiday home in Spain, and squatters break in without your knowledge, and stay for 48 hours undisturbed, then you have a big problem on your hands.

In other countries, you would simply call the police, and have them kicked out forthwith. But not in Spain, where squatters have more rights than property owners once they have moved in. This is related to another corrosive trend – the long term erosion of private property rights in Spain.

If you miss the immediate window of opportunity to report squatters to the police when they are breaking in, or shortly after, you lose your best chance of getting them out quickly the legal way with little cost and risk.

Once they are installed, with the locks changed, and personal possession in place, it will look less like a break in, and more like the squatters live there. They will get squatters’ rights, and it could take you months, if not years, to have them evicted.

Because of the way the law and legal system works in Spain, if you call the police once the squatters have settled in, the police are not going to stick their neck out for your sake. They prefer to leave it to the courts. The only circumstance in which the police will kick out squatter without a judicial order is if it is clear the squatters have just broken in and have not had time to get installed and make a show of living there.  So you have to act within hours of a break in.

If you call the police too late, you will find yourself locked in a slow and costly judicial process to get the squatters out. During that time you have to continue paying the utility bills, because if you cut off the water and electricity, the squatters will report you to the police, and you risk being charged with intimidation and coercion.

If and when you do finally get them evicted, who knows how much damage they will have done to your property. I have heard stories of owners finding their property gutted and trashed when they finally got it back. There’s a big emotional cost too.

Second-home owners are a soft target for squatter mafias

squatting in Spain
A British-owned villa occupied by squatters in the Valencian Region

Squatters can be an expensive nightmare for Spanish property owners, which makes them an excellent way to extort money.

If squatters take over your property, it’s often quicker, and cheaper just to pay them to leave, which gives mafias an incentive to organise squatters as an extortion racket.

Second-homes are an easy target because they are empty most of the time, and because the authorities are less likely to evict on the spot in the case of second homes.

Foreign owners are the softest targets of all. They are far away, and will find it more difficult to deal with the problem of their Spanish home being turned into a squat than locals. And it is often assumed that all foreign owners are made of money. 

How to protect your property from squatters in Spain

If you own a second-home in Spain, which is unoccupied for long periods at a time, you really should consider taking measures to keep an eye on your property when you are not there, so that you know if there is a break in, or invasion by squatters, and can do something about it. If you don’t know, you can’t act.

Even if you live full time in Spain, you should consider a security system to help you keep an eye on your home when you go away. 

The way to keep an eye on your property in Spain is to install a home surveillance and alarm system that (1) alerts you to break-ins and (2) deters intruders.

The most expensive option is fitting a bespoke alarm system and ongoing security service. This might cost anything between €1,000 and €3,000 installation plus €300 or more per year in security subscription fees.

Another expensive option is hiring a security company offering a standard package like Securitas Direct or Prosegur, who typically charge an installation fee of up to €500, and a monthly quota from €29 to €50. 

Alternatively, you can buy cameras and sensors online, and set up your own system. The gear might cost you anything from €50 upwards, depending on what you want. In my experience, the solution isn’t reliable enough, and involves fiddling around with the apps of Chinese manufacturers, running of servers in China.

Finally, there is a simple, low-cost, solution in development to help you keep an eye on your gaff in Spain. I’ve seen the prototype in action, and the results are impressive. Although based on the latest technology, it’s dead easy to use, and gives you valuable visibility into your property in Spain. Click ‘Keep me informed’ to be the first to know about this solution when it’s ready, which should be in the next few months. Property professionals should stay informed for their clients. This will be a powerful tool for protecting homes against squatters, and well worth knowing about.

 

 

What to do if your property is occupied by squatters in Spain?

If you discover the intrusion as it is happening or shortly afterwards, you need to call, or have someone call, the local police straight away. If they arrive and it looks like a break-in, you have a better chance of the intruders being evicted and charged with allanamiento de morada or breaking and entering.

If you don’t discover the problem in time, at least within the first 48 hours, then you should contact one of the lawyers or companies that specialise in dealing with squatter problems in Spain. Check out the business directory for services to deal with squatters and adverse possession in Spain.