08th Jan, 2024 Read time 7 minutes

How to Conduct a Security Risk Assessment on a Vacant Property

Contrary to popular belief, vacant properties are rarely, if ever, safe from damage or crime. 

When a property is unoccupied for an extended period, it’s often seen as a prime target for trespassers and criminals, which, for new owners or developers looking to acquire or revamp such a space, requires careful consideration.

Buying and restoring a vacant property brings both opportunities and safety risks, the latter of which should always be a priority. When a building remains uninhabited for a time, it could be sold at a more attractive price for prospective developers, or provide cheap office rental space for scaling companies. However, there are a few concerns to address, not least because vacant properties could invariably succumb to damage caused by weather deterioration or water ingress due to a lack of maintenance, as well as theft, vandalism or even, in extreme cases, arson, among other potentially dangerous acts.

Suffice to say, it’s not uncommon to face several upfront costs associated with bringing a property up to an acceptable standard. However, before that can even begin, new property owners should address these incumbent security risks above all else.

Before opening the space to new tenants, residents, or businesses, or even for public commercial use, it’s vital to conduct a thorough, expansive security risk assessment. This will allow new or prospective property owners to address safety issues proactively and diligently.

Why Assess Security Risks?

Owners have moral and legal obligations to ensure their premises are safe and habitable for all of their tenants or residents. A security risk assessment helps identify opportunities to help the property meet these requirements. Landlords and tenants usually require that both agreeing parties commission building surveys, such as Schedule of Condition reports, to identify accident liability claims and safeguard the interests of property owners. 

A security risk assessment can often go in perfect tandem with these types of surveys, combining to make a more attractive proposition for commercial tenants or buyers. Fundamentally, however, the upfront costs associated with bringing a property up to scratch will be far lower than the fees associated with structural damage repairs, safety or injury claims, or regulatory fines. 

So how do new building owners go about planning and executing the right security assessment?

Planning the Assessment

The first step in any building risk assessment is to appoint a competent risk assessor. This can be someone working internally within the organisation, or a specialist, objective third party. Ideally, the appointed person must be someone with a broad knowledge of the business(es) and property itself. Thus, they must have a knowledge and awareness of proper building health and safety standards, including the technical aspects of materials and equipment situated on site, and what issues and hazards can materialise while the property remains vacant.

The initial assessment should occur before any tenants or residents move into the premises, with regular inspections conducted afterwards. Typically this schedule should be regular enough to warrant periodic, thorough and non-disruptive assessments. The ideal assessment schedule will depend on the risk exposure and damage incurred to the property when it was first acquired. Such structural remediation may warrant continued inspections to analyse their effectiveness.

Ahead of time, however, collect as much material as you possibly can, from building plans and inspection reports to incident logs and accident filings. 

Conducting the Assessment

For each vacant building assessment, the structure of each inspection will vary. However, the loose steps that an assessment will follow will be as follows:

1. Define Objectives

The risk assessor must agree and stick to the key assessment objectives, which will likely differ depending on the state of the vacant property and why it remains uninhabited. Ultimately, however, the main objectives will likely be to maintain optimum safety and security, and to maintain the condition of the building for specific purposes such as selling or letting.

2.  Identifying Hazards

In order to establish whether the current building controls are suitable enough to meet the desired objectives, all potential hazards must be identified. These can include:

  • Access hazards – Dangers relating to unauthorised people on site, potential theft or intrusion opportunities, or the security of people living or working nearby. These hazards relate to any fencing, gates, window and door locks, glass, and potential vegetation growth around the premises that restrict access or present hiding spots for trespassers.

  • Health hazards – These concern hazards relate to personal health and safety. Assessors should check for unsanitary conditions, asbestos, dangerous substances, and any failing or poorly functioning utilities such as hot water, heating and electrics.

  • Safety hazards – Any potential risks that pose an injury or well-being risk should be identified in line when assessing the environment and layout of the building. Potential slips, trips, and falls can be prevented by proactive hazard identification, as well as fire risks and building deterioration.

3. Evaluating Risk Level

For each identified hazard, evaluate the following:

  • The likelihood of an incident occurring
  • The plausible severity and consequences of such an incident
  • A low, medium or high-risk rating when assessing likelihood and severity

This analysis helps to inform appropriate control measures to help achieve the desired objectives. The RICS Building Safety Act has recently undergone legislative change that defines new criteria for buildings to meet, which can be found here. This will help assign all potential risks to their most appropriate risk levels.

4. Recording Findings

During the assessment, hazards and findings should be mapped to pinpoint the most appropriate control measures. This will include:

  • All hazards noted and risk ratings assigned
  • Recommendations to mitigate or remove risks
  • Deadlines for actions
  • Dates for reassessment

5. Reviewing Results

The property owner reviews assessment findings with the assessor, agreeing on plans to promptly and effectively address security risks and bring the property to an appropriate and safe standard. 

Common Hazards and Controls

While risks differ across sites, some frequent vacant property hazards and mitigation tactics include:

Access Hazards

Hazard Typical Controls
Damaged perimeter fencing Repair any holes and stabilise fence panels
Unsecured doors or windows Install new locks on all unsecured access points
Poorly functioning alarms Retrofit enterprise-grade security systems and CCTV to deter intruders
Roof access via wheelie bins Lock any external bin stores and minimise access to anything that trespassers can use as leverage

Health & Safety Hazards

Hazard Typical Controls
Asbestos materials Invest in a specialist asbestos survey and proactively instigate asbestos removal by a licenced contractor
Unsafe electrics Conduct an electrical inspection and upgrade to meet the minimum standards
Vermin infestation Pay for a thorough pest control inspection and appropriate extermination treatment
Combustible materials Safe removal and disposal of any flammable elements

Implementing Controls

To keep costs low and operational efficiency high, building owners should prioritise addressing the highest priority risks first. Whether this involves complete removal, reduction, or isolation, mitigation actions should be proactively addressed before opening the premises to any potential new tenants or the public.

Once the appropriate controls have been put in place, reinspecting the premises will demonstrate their short- and long-term effectiveness. New risks can arise over time, and security should be an ongoing effort, so it’s essential to maintain vigilance and high-quality controls.

Risk assessments should be treated as formal, official processes and, as such, should be recorded and revisited periodically to ensure that all measures remain valid and effective. 

While control measures may incur some upfront investment, this pales in comparison to the financial, legal, and reputational damage suffered following a serious safety incident. 

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