If your rental property is currently unoccupied, you better watch out.

It might soon be the target of unwanted guests or squatters, who can cause significant damage.

Not only can landlords be forced to pick up the tab for the damage, but they might also lose the rental income while repairs are taking place.

“We have seen situations where a squatter has broken doors and windows to force entry into a property, punched holes in walls, ripped up carpet and sprayed graffiti throughout,” said Carolyn Parrella, Executive Manager of Terri Scheer Insurance.

However, the good news for landlords is that there are preventive measures which can greatly reduce the risk of squatters taking over.

Increase security

This step is paramount, whether your property is occupied or not, said Parrella.

She recommends installing deadlocks on external doors and fitting security screens to accessible windows, which can work as a deterrent for unwanted guests contemplating breaking in.

“Having an active local or back-to-base alarm system in place can also help keep your property secure while it is vacant,” she said.

 Check the property regularly

It is imperative that landlords formally conduct a final property inspection when a tenant leaves the property, said Parrella.

“Outgoing condition reports with supporting photos and videos can be used as evidence if there are any further outstanding issues once the tenant has vacated the property.”

If you think the property is going to be vacant for an extended period of time, it may be worth hiring a gardener, she said.

“Long grass, excess leaves covering pathways and overgrown foliage can make it obvious that the property is unoccupied, and may make the property an easy target for squatters.”

Make the property appear occupied

Squatters look for signs that a property is unoccupied, so it makes sense to make it appear to look like somebody is living there.

“Installing automatic motion-sensors or timed lighting systems are a good idea for landlords, as they will give the impression that someone is home when the lights turn on," said Parrella.

Clearing the place of excess mail and newspapers is definitely something to consider. It may also be worth telling a trusted neighbour that the property is unoccupied, so they can keep an eye on it, said Parrella.

Have landlord and building insurance

It is important to realise that a good landlord insurance policy should protect against malicious damage to the property, which could affect things like the carpet or blinds, said Parrella.

“However, damage to the building itself may be at the landlord’s expense unless they have a suitable building insurance policy in place.

“Building insurance may offer protection of a landlord’s rental income if the property is damaged and can’t be tenanted for a period of one week up to 52 weeks.”