Neglected Property Cleanups Often Become Difficult Projects; Make Them Easier

Published: June 16, 2024

Cleaning up a neglected property, whether that is a vacant lot or a vacant home or commercial building, is usually a little more challenging than cleaning up a public park where you have a willing city government partner. Incidentally, this can happen in the best of neighborhoods if there is a property owner who disappears to jail, a health facility, or the Bahamas, so don't think this page s for some other type of community.

Here are some tips for making this type of cleanup as stress-free and successful as possible.

derelict property cleanup

1.        First and foremost, pay attention to the legalities. You need property owner permission, and it should be written permission. If you have a conversation with the owner, ask if they will sign a simple statement of permission. If they do not indicate any particular reservations about what you or your volunteers might do, you could write a one-paragraph or one-sentence statement for them to sign.  Include what kind of general work will be done, that the volunteers waive any legal consequences for injury if you want to do that, what day or dates this will occur, how keys or other access will be managed, any areas that the volunteers are to stay out of, and what kinds of items are not to be thrown away.  Add your own phone number as the contact person.

2.        Despite our number one point, yes, I bet that every day of the year, there is a neighborhood association somewhere in the U.S. that has decided to take matters into their own hands. This happens sometimes because the owner or heirs are unknown, or cannot be located. You have to decide how bold you want to be legally.  If your group is mostly on board with this procedure, but there are a few doubts, you could try posting a note on the property for a few weeks before you plan to do the work. (If you know the owner you all were acquainted with is deceased, check out our heir property page for more information.)

3.        Try to get onto the property in advance to determine the scope and nature of the cleanup needs. You may need flashlights (or floodlights if there is electricity), machetes, axes, and such. You might need a heat source if you are trying to do this in winter weather. Your volunteers may need boots and probably need gloves in almost every case. Determine if there are any infestations, especially of bees, termites, or a whole colony of rats. In these cases, you may want to have a small number of people, or even professional pest control contractors, precede your group.

4.        Regardless of your ability to access the property before the agreed-upon date, be smart about assessing the structural soundness of any buildings involved. If you can see from the street that the building is leaning, be sure to talk with knowledgeable folks about what they think.

5.        Remember to ask close neighbors what they know or remember about the situation. The clues you receive can alert you to new ways to try to contact the rightful owner, or to probable hazards. Also during this contact, be sure to alert them to possible complications due to more vehicles moving around and parking on the street, or maybe just more noise and commotion.

6.        Assess the likelihood that you will encounter squatters who are living on or in the property without the knowledge and permission of the owner. Think through what you will do in that situation. Decide if the personality of your organization or group would lean more to compassion or strictness.  If you have been in contact with the owner, but the owner does not seem to know about this situation, you may want to be in touch before you deal with the squatters themselves. If you are do-gooders who will want to be compassionate, decide beforehand how much time you will be giving squatters to remove their belongings, if you are going to require that.

7.        For this type of work, it is best to leave the children and seniors behind. Maybe the older folks can be back at the office or other meeting place making sandwiches.

8.        Investigate beforehand whether your town or city has a code enforcement unit that could help by issuing some citations to the property owner. If this is truly a problem property, the city may have tried that earlier without obtaining any compliance. Or increasingly, the city itself may have been unable to locate the owner due to complex legal arrangements set up by the owners to avoid detection or due to a large number of heirs in unknown locations. However, if they can and will issue citations to a known owner, the delay in your derelict property cleanup may be well worth it.

9.        Lastly, decide in advance what the end game is. Are you going to be satisfied if the property just looks a little better, is cleaning up the exterior sufficient even if you know the interior to be a rat-infested mess, are you going to allow the vegetation to continue to be overgrown, and are you going to allow conditions that will cause further deterioration, such as unpainted wood surfaces, to continue?

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