An increasing number of criminals are renting residential properties and turning them into illegal drug farms. According to recent reports, 94% of cannabis farms (also known as factories or grows) have been located in domestic premises. Although all privately rented properties are at risk, cannabis gangs are more likely to set up 'home' in a house rather than a flat as they require space to cultivate their plants. Additionally, these gangs tend to favour secluded properties in areas where there is little through traffic, such as cul-de-sacs.
Insurance company Aviva received 92 cannabis claims from landlords in 2010 compared to 71 the previous year. The insurer said the damage included holes knocked into ceilings and walls to support the lighting apparatus required to run a farm, as well as floorboards being ripped up. Properties had also suffered water damage from hydroponic installations, and fires caused by faulty wiring or overheating. Furniture had been destroyed or thrown away to make more space for plants, and wiring had been ripped out and electricity meters tampered with to stop them accurately recording the amount of electricity used. Aviva wouldn't reveal the cost of the claims.
If your property is being used as a farm you may find that no one answers the door when you visit, and that the locks have been changed without you knowing. The police claim a rented property of a good size with several rooms and an absentee landlord are popular choices for cannabis farmers. Landlords should be wary of people who ask how often you will visit the property. They should also beware of seemingly perfect tenants who increase their appeal by offering to pay six months rent in advance, sometimes by cash.
Nationally there were 643,510 cannabis plants seized in 2008-09, increasing by 18% to 758,700 in 2009-10. But 83% of seizures by the police last year were for 50 plants or fewer – further indication of the trend for criminals to carry out small-scale farming rather than industrial-scale operations.
Cheshire police recently issued a warning alerting local people to the increased number of farms being found in busy residential communities. It said cannabis farms had been found in large towns such as Warrington, Macclesfield and Northwich, as well as rural areas such as Tarvin – indicating the problem is not confined to major cities.
The cannabis farms also present a health and safety risk as they require large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. Properties can be completely ruined inside to make space for plants, water damage can occur, and fire poses a risk due to interference with electrics or strong lighting left on for a long time.
It is vitally important to conduct thorough checks on prospective tenants and carry out regular visits to properties. Permanently closed curtains, blacked out windows and strong smells are all signs that there may be a cannabis factory on your premises.
There are sometimes obvious signs of a cannabis farm in your neighbourhood: you might notice a pungent and sweet smell on the street with no obvious source; unusual levels of heat coming from a property; or no frost or snow apparent when every house around it is covered. You might also spot unusual noises at odd times such as fans going constantly, or large items like sacks or drums being dragged around. The creation of new air vents or the use of industrial air vents in a domestic property is also a tell-tale sign.
Insurance usually covers damage caused by cannabis farming only if a number of procedures are carried out, including obtaining written employers' references and verified records of a bank account for new tenants, as well as a log of property inspections.
Employing a letting agent to manage the tenant-vetting process and provide an inspection service on the landlord's behalf is a good option as insurers could refuse a claim if a landlord has been found to neglect their responsibilities.
16th May 2011