Brexit, holiday lets and absent owners: why the UK has 200,000 vacant properties

The real reasons why homes are empty in different parts of the UK

(Image credit: Thomas Sanderson)

The number of empty homes in the UK rose for the first time in 2018, after falling every year since 2008. Currently, the number of empty homes in the country stands at over 216,000 – but what are the real reasons behind the figures? While the recent Brexit-related property slump will account for some empty homes that haven't sold, it doesn't fully explain the empty home phenomenon. 

The overall figure is concerning, especially given the long waiting lists for council housing and the increase in homelessness countrywide, but it's important to understand the different causes of homes standing empty in different parts of the country. 

London has a long-standing problem with empty homes, which no London mayor so far has been able to eradicate. The reasons differ between boroughs: exclusive areas of London such as Kensington and Chelsea tend to have empty homes because of the 'cash parking' practice by foreign buyers, where a home is bought without any intention of anyone living in it. 

On the other hand, trendy areas such as Shoreditch have a high concentration of Airbnb properties. Airbnb have recently introduced the 90-day rule, meaning a property can't be listed for more than 90 days on the site. However, recent insights into the platform have shown that there's nothing preventing Airbnb landlords from just switching to a different platform once they've reached their limit, or changing the name of their listing to a different flat. In any case, the 90-day rule does not solve the problem of a property becoming unavailable for long-term occupancy.  

The situation in a city like Birmingham is quite different, however: some landlords have been migrating to the 'second city', attracted by lower prices. Property expert Emily Evans explains in her blog that in the cases of Birmingham and Liverpool, 'they’re not as easy areas for letting in [as London], so many of these properties are staying unoccupied for longer.' 

Then there are areas such as Bradford that have suffered from decades of post-industrial decline, which has spelled job losses and low incomes. As RICS comment, 'houses in such areas are still in demand, but although the asking prices seem low compared to those in London they are too expensive for people on low incomes.'

And finally, there are coastal towns that have a large proportion of properties that stand empty because they're only used as holiday homes. 

The overall picture of the issue is multi-faceted, and clearly requires local action that's appropriate to the specific reasons for homes standing empty. This is why the work of organisations such as Action on Empty Homes is so important, helping ordinary people to get involved in bringing unoccupied homes back into use.