Cannabis factories are the new scourge of suburbia as criminals seek more inventive ways of making money through drug production. Louisa Jakeman says landlords need to be vigilant.
West Midlands Police have spent around £500,000 in the past five months investigating cases of such “factories”. This has included numerous cases in Birmingham and also in Solihull.
The latest police raid uncovered more than 350 cannabis plants at various stages of growth in a semi-detached home in Radstock Avenue, Hodge Hill recently.
Police say some of the plants were almost ready for harvest and subsequent distribution on the streets.
Such production dens are becoming an increasing problem in the Midlands.
The word ‘factory’ suggests warehouses and business units being devoted to cannabis production but 94 per cent of these factories are not in business premises at all but are in residential properties.
Most of these properties are bought as buy-to-let investments and in many cases the properties have been normal houses in residential neighbourhoods that, unbeknownst to the landlord and neighbours has been converted to a giant greenhouse.
Cannabis factories not only involve drug production and drug sales. They also involve cannabis “gardeners” who are often immigrant workers with no right to live and/or work in the UK. So they involve various criminal activities and are considered to be a very serious problem by the police.
The buy-to-let landlord can find him or herself in a very serious position if he knows that his buy-to-let home is being used to grow cannabis in and does nothing about it.
Also, a buy-to-let landlord can be left with substantial electricity and water bills to pay. Cannabis factories are major users of these services.
In many cases, the buy-to-let landlord can find that the people who operate the factory have changed the house significantly to create the factory. This can include pulling down walls inside the house to make larger rooms.”
The costs in insurance terms can also be astronomical. Insurers will not insure houses that are used as cannabis factories which can leave buy-to-let landlords with damage worth thousands of pounds and no insurance to cover it.
Many factories are discovered only when electrical installations cause a fire at the home and the factory is discovered by fire officers. Again this could mean the buy-to-let landlord has a fire damaged property, and an insurer who refuses to pay up because it is an illegal business activity.
From the buy-to-let landlord’s point of view it is best for him to avoid getting into a position where he ends up with a cannabis factory within his property,” said Ms Jakeman. Operators tend to choose unassuming houses where they think that the landlord and the neighbours will not notice the illegal activity.
The best things the buy-to-let landlord can do to avoid becoming a victim involve being vigilant and making it his or her business to know what is going on in the house.
Prudent buy-to-let landlords should consider doing all of the following:
n Take up references themselves before agreeing to accept any tenant, no matter how respectable the tenant may appear on paper or in meetings. Don’t accept references a tenant hands over himself – the references may be forged. It is a good idea to include references from a previous landlord or landlord’s agent if the tenant says he has rented before.
n Be wary of any tenant who offers to pay a large amount of rent, say for six months or 12 months, in advance. Many ‘factory’ operators make these kinds of offers which can seem very attractive to the landlord. Do not be seduced by these offers.
n Use written tenancy agreements in all cases and make sure the agreement allows the landlord or any managing agent to inspect the property by appointment.
Inspect the house regularly – at least once a month is best – or get an agent to inspect and to issue a written report of his inspection. A landlord will need to do this by appointment with the tenants. Be very wary of the tenants who will never allow access – the tenants may offer various excuses as to why an appointment cannot be offered or kept.
n If the landlord does not live locally ask a neighbour or agent to keep an eye on the property. If a landlord is local, keep a general eye on the property on a regular basis. Features of factories are strange smells, windows blacked out and people coming and going at strange hours.
n If a landlord or a landlord’s agent or a neighbour has any suspicions that illicit activity is going on, these should be reported immediately to the police or Crimestoppers. Tenants or “gardeners” should not be approached – they may be dangerous or may have contacts with dangerous groups.
A properly drawn up tenant agreement prepared by a solicitor or an advisory organisation for landlords will include the necessary rights to inspect a home.
A solicitor or a landlords’ advisory organisation such as the National Landlords Association can give good advice to buy-to-let investors who wish to avoid being caught out with this very serious problem.
* Louisa Jakeman is a property expert at Williamson and Soden solicitors