Squatters in Spain, known as Okupas in Spanish, are a serious threat to property owners in a country where the authorities don’t appear to take the threat seriously, especially in areas where squatters enjoy high-level political support like Catalonia.
The risk of squatters in Spain
The problem of adverse possession, more commonly known as squatting, is much more serious in Spain than anywhere else in Europe, and it’s getting worse each year.
According to data from the Spanish Home Office, the number of cases of adverse possession has doubled since 2016, and increased 20% between 2018 and 2019.
There were 12,214 cases of squatting reported to the police in 2018, but many, perhaps most owners, who find their homes occupied by squatters, don’t report it to the police, and elect to go down extra-judicial routes, because it is so difficult and expensive to evict squatters legally in Spain.
How many homes in Spain are currently occupied by squatters? The estimate is between 90,000 and 100,000, according to Spanish press reports
By comparison, there were an estimated 20,000 cases of squatters in the UK for latest figures available a few years back (Wikipedia), and the UK is a country with a significantly bigger housing stock and population. Though reliable figures for international comparisons are hard to come by, it’s clear that the risk to owners of property in Spain is much higher than in other European countries.
Why is the problem of squatting so bad in Spain?
There are various factors that make squatting such a big problem in Spain, including:
- A lack of social housing
- A romanticised, counter-culture history of squatting driven by well-off kids playing the anti-establishment game, especially in cities like Barcelona
- Poorly drafted / ambiguous laws that discourage firm action by front line law enforcement and courts
- A slow and inefficient legal system that squatters know how to exploit
- Powerful political support, in some areas, for squatter movements, and housing activists that lobby for squatter rights
Thanks to its political and legal system, Spain is a squatter’s paradise, and foreigner owners of second-homes on the coast, in particular, are a soft touch for mafias using squatters to extort payments out of home owners.
The Olive Press recently published an opinion piece saying that the Spanish authorities must do more than diddly-squat about the rise of okupas, which just reflects the level of frustration people feel about this problem. But although the Spanish squatter problem has been brewing for years, the current Government, a coalition that includes the squatter-friendly hard-left party Podemos, is unlikely to do anything about it.
The system protects squatters
This is how the system works against you as a property owner in Spain, and favours squatters, especially the mafias who use squatters to exploit the system.
If you own a holiday home in Spain, and squatters break in without your knowledge, and stay for 48 hours undisturbed, then you have a big problem on your hands.
In other countries, you would simply call the police, and have them kicked out forthwith. But not in Spain, where squatters have more rights than property owners once they have moved in. This is related to another corrosive trend – the long term erosion of private property rights in Spain.
If you miss the immediate window of opportunity to report squatters to the police when they are breaking in, or shortly after, you lose your best chance of getting them out quickly the legal way with little cost and risk.
Once they are installed, with the locks changed, and personal possession in place, it will look less like a break in, and more like the squatters live there. They will get squatters’ rights, and it could take you months, if not years, to have them evicted.
Because of the way the law and legal system works in Spain, if you call the police once the squatters have settled in, the police are not going to stick their neck out for your sake. They prefer to leave it to the courts. The only circumstance in which the police will kick out squatter without a judicial order is if it is clear the squatters have just broken in and have not had time to get installed and make a show of living there. So you have to act within hours of a break in.
If you call the police too late, you will find yourself locked in a slow and costly judicial process to get the squatters out. During that time you have to continue paying the utility bills, because if you cut off the water and electricity, the squatters will report you to the police, and you risk being charged with intimidation and coercion.
If and when you do finally get them evicted, who knows how much damage they will have done to your property. I have heard stories of owners finding their property gutted and trashed when they finally got it back. There’s a big emotional cost too.
The 'pizza delivery receipt' trick
A common trick that squatters use to run rings around owners and the authorities who are supposed to protect their property-rights is the pizza-home delivery trick that started in Catalonia and is now becoming more widespread around Spain.
The trick works like this. Having identified a target property to invade like an empty home on the rental market or a second-home, squatters order a pizza-delivery a few days before they strike, and wait outside for the pizza to arrive. Once delivered they have a pizza to eat and a delivery receipt with the date and address on it, which they can then use to ‘prove’ that they were living at the address several days before they break in. So if they are caught breaking in, or shortly after, and the police are called, they produce the pizza-delivery receipt as proof that they have been living there for at least 48 hours, which is the time-frame that gives them ‘squatters rights’, at least according to most press reports (some experts dispute this 48hr claim, but it seems to work in practise).
“The pizza trick has been used in Catalonia since 2018, when a law aimed at fast evictions was passed,” explains Montserrat Junyent, the legal council of the COAPI agents association in Spain, talking to the property portal Idealista. “The squatters use the [pizza-delivery] receipt to try to show that they live in the property. Because the police don’t have the authority to act if they aren’t sure, this can mean the squatters are not evicted straight away.”
If the police have any doubts, or even if they have no doubts but a case could be made that there were grounds for doubts, the police pass on taking action and the case goes to courts, leaving the squatters to make themselves at home for as long as the judicial proceedings last, which was 18 months on average in 2021, according to data from the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). In other words, owners of property in Spain have to wait a year and half on average to get the squatters out and get their property back if the police don’t evict on the spot, and the case goes to the courts.
Why don't the police kick squatters out on the spot?
Why don’t the police just kick squatters out if they are called out by the owners or people representing the owners, you might ask?
Because, according to Spanish law, the police can only evict on the spot if they catch the squatters in the act of breaking in or shortly thereafter, which Spanish law defines as a ‘delito flagrante’. If it is not a ‘delito flagrante’ (caught in the act), if they have any doubts or grounds for doubts, the police can only make a report and send the case to the courts.
According to a group for victims of squatters called the National Organisation for Victims of Squatting (Organización Nacional de Afectados por la Okupación in Spanish, ONAO for short) the police have their hands tied by the political establishment, which is on the side of squatters. “The police are subject to something like institutional and political harassment,” says Toni Miranda, president of the ONAO, in comments to Idealista. “With insufficient resources, politicised management, and many inept politicians giving orders and punishing officers who don’t comply, you see how a simple [pizza] receipt can have the power of a notarised document. Until there is political change we will only see support for the squatting crime.”
It’s worse than that. As the Rental Negotiation Agency (Agencia Negociadora del Alquiler in Spanish, or ANA for short) points out, with the authorities facing all sorts of tricks used by squatters to confuse the authorities and disguise the illegal occupation of homes, the police do not want to risk their jobs. That’s because, if there was a complaint against them for intervening by entering a home occupied by squatters they risk not only a much bigger fine than squatters ever face but also special disqualification that can lead to them permanently losing their jobs as police or civil guards, and being banned from similar jobs for as long as they are disqualified, as regulated by articles 42 and 534-1-1 of the Criminal Code. Is it any surprise, then, that “when they have any doubts about intervening, they pass the problem to the courts, and from that moment on the process drags on for an eternity.”
Types of squatters in Spain
Spain has a legal and political framework that encourages squatting, especially mafia extortion-rackets exploiting the system to shakedown property owners with the threat of squatters. So it should surprise nobody that Spain has a serious problem with the illegal occupation of property.
But not all squatters are the same. Very generally speaking, there are four different types of squatters, not including households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments due to hard times. If you own property in Spain, it might help you to know a bit more about the different types of squatters, so you have a better idea of what kind of a threat you are facing, if any.
People with no other housing options, who cannot afford to rent a home, and have no access to social housing. These are people with few economic resources, who tend to come from deprived and marginalised backgrounds. These are people for whom the State typically provides social housing or housing benefits in other developed countries, but this is something that successive Spanish governments and regions have failed to do. This group tends to target properties such as abandoned warehouses, or derelict or empty homes in gritty urban areas, and pose little or no threat to properties like second homes on the coast.
Squatter lifestyle groups
Left-wing, anti-capitalist groups with a political agenda, probably from nice middle class backgrounds, enjoying alternative lifestyles, and rebelling against the system. Squatting in this case is a lifestyle choice, as they tend to have other housing options. They are well organised around a political agenda, and tend to take over whole buildings that are suited to a commune-style squat. They were part of the post-Franco counterculture, which gives them a venere of romanticism in the popular mind. They agitate for squatters’ rights, and enjoy high-level political support on the left, but they are less of a threat to individual homes.
Another category of squatters could be described as political pawns. They are used by housing activists in their fight against housing investors as described in this article – Squatter types in Spain: Political pawns
Freeriders are people who do have other options, but cynically exploit Spain’s squatter-friendly legal and political environment to live for free at someone else’s expense. They might enter with a rental contact, and pay for a while, then stop paying. When finally evicted they might move on to another unsuspecting landlord, and repeat the same trick. They can live rent-free for years this way. A potential nightmare for landlords, but less of a threat to other owners.
Spain’s squatter-friendly legal and political framework makes property an ideal target for organised groups using squatters to extort money from owners. And the ban on all evictions introduced by the Government in response to the coronavirus crisis of 2020 leaves owners even more defenseless.
Mafias know that once a squatter is installed, the owner might be facing years of legal costs, lost income, and maintenance costs that can be ruinous, especially if the property is trashed before it is recovered, and needs a big investment to make it habitable again. Whilst their properties are occupied by squatters, owners must continue paying all the utility bills, not to mention taxes and community fees. These extortion-rackets have an incentive to run up big utility bills, safe in the knowledge that owners can be prosecuted if they cut off the supply. The squatter-friendly system means that mafias have owners over a barrel, and everyone knows it, so owners can be forgiven for paying them to leave, which is the whole point of the extortion. Unfortunately, when owners cave in, that just validates the extortion, and encourages more of it. When owners refuse to pay, some mafias have reportedly ‘sold on’ the use of the property to others, who may or may not know what is going on. That way the mafias get paid, yet owners are still left with a big problem.
Spain’s squatter friendly system, and the high-level political support squatters enjoy on the left, is an open invitation for organised gangs to extort property owners with little or no risk. The more expensive the property, the better. Squatter mafias are a threat to all properties in Spain, especially ones that are left unoccupied for significant periods of time such as second homes.
The cost of dealing with squatters in Spain
Property is expensive. For most people their home is the biggest investment they ever make, and their most valuable asset, which has to be protected from damage or theft. The bigger the investment, the more you sacrifice to make it, the more you have to lose if things go wrong, so property is also the biggest risk in most people’s lives. It is also the biggest cost-centre for most families, with taxes, financing, and maintenance bills that never stop rolling in.
The high-value, high-cost reality of property investing also makes it an ideal target for extortion rackets. If you can be denied the use of your property, whilst the bills keep rolling in, then someone has you over a barrel, and can extort money from you, if the state doesn’t protect you.
This is exactly what happens with squatters in Spain, where the squatter-friendly legal and political framework, plus high level political support for squatters, leaves owners almost defenseless against adverse possession, and therefore an obvious target for extortion.
How does the extortion work? The key is in the costs you face if squatters take over your property. It’s going to cost you a bomb, but you can’t walk away without facing even more costs, all secured by your biggest asset. And the less well-off you are, the higher the price you pay. A rich person can cope with the costs, but what if you are not rich? What if you have saved and made sacrifices to afford a property, but you don’t have much of a financial buffer if things go wrong? Squatters can be ruinous for owners who can least afford it.
Because here’s the thing: In Spain, the State protects squatters more than property owners. Squatters can deny you the use of your home, run up big costs you have to pay, and trash your property with impunity, whilst you face fines and prosecution if you don’t pay up.
According to a senior executive at one of the biggest landlord companies in Spain talking anonymously to the Spanish property portal Idealista in 2022, ransom payments are becoming common practise as mafia gangs use squatters to extort money from owners. “They demand 3,000€ to leave, although in some cases it can even be as high as 5,000€,” he said.
Here are the costs you face if squatters get installed in your Spanish property, and which allow them to extort money from you:
Costly and lengthy eviction process. If squatters get into your property, you have to start eviction proceedings, otherwise you will never get your property back, whilst the bills mount up. The legal process can take months, or even years, because squatters, especially squatter mafias, know all the tricks in the book to delay proceedings, and run rings around the system. The longer it takes, the more costs you face.
Lost income or use. Whilst squatters are in your property, you can’t rent it out, and you can’t use it. So you might lose thousands of euros in rental income, or have to pay rent yourself if you can’t use your own property. You certainly lose the utility value of your own property.
Utility bills. If you cut off the utilities like water, electricity and gas you can be prosecuted for coercion, a potential serious offence with stiff penalties. So you have to keep paying the bills, however large. There are stories of squatter mafias deliberately racking up the utility bills to pressurise owners into paying them to leave.
Ownership costs. The ownership costs like taxes and community fees have to be paid even if your property rights have been denied you by squatters. As a second home you will also have to pay an imputed income tax for a property you can’t use.
Renovation costs. Squatters are not likely to look after your home. In most cases your property will be trashed by the time you get it back, leaving you with a big renovation bill running into the thousands of euros if it is ever to be made habitable again. Squatter mafias have an incentive to wreck the property as part of the extortion, as they run no risks, and face no costs if they do.
Time cost. Dealing with squatters can take up a lot of your time. Every minute you spend on a squatter problem is a minute you could have spent on something better. Time is our scarcest resource, and you never get it back. How valuable is your time to you? What is the opportunity cost? Squatters steal your time.
Emotional cost. Dealing with squatters can be very distressing. The whole situation is so unfair, and so unjust. It comes with a high emotional cost.
Every case is different, but these costs taken together can be ruinous, especially for owners who are not rich, and who have made financial sacrifices to own a property in Spain. Dealing with squatters can cost you many thousands of euros, and take up a lot of your time and energy, draining you emotionally over months or years. The alternative is to pay the squatter mafia a few thousand euros to leave now. Owners can be forgiven for caving into the extortion, which just encourages more extortion, all facilitated by Spain’s squatter-friendly system.
Second-home owners are a soft target
Squatters can be an expensive nightmare for Spanish property owners, which makes squatting an excellent way to extort money from owners.
If squatters take over your property, it’s often quicker and cheaper just to pay them to leave, which gives mafias an incentive to organise squatters as an extortion racket. Which is exactly what they do. Criminals respond to incentives. Whoever knew?
Second-homes are an easy target because they are empty most of the time, and because the authorities are less likely to evict on the spot in the case of second homes.
Foreign owners are the softest targets of all. They are far away, and will find it more difficult to deal with the problem of their Spanish home being turned into a squat than locals. And it is often assumed that all foreign owners are made of money.
How to protect your property from squatters in Spain
If you own a second-home in Spain, which is unoccupied for long periods at a time, you really should consider taking measures to keep an eye on your property when you are not there, so that you know if there is a break in, or invasion by squatters, and can do something about it. If you don’t know, you can’t act.
Even if you live full time in Spain, you should consider a security system to help you keep an eye on your home when you go away.
The way to keep an eye on your property in Spain is to install a home surveillance and alarm system that (1) alerts you to break-ins and (2) deters intruders.
The most expensive option is fitting a bespoke alarm system and ongoing security service. This might cost anything between €1,000 and €3,000 installation plus €300 or more per year in security subscription fees.
Another expensive option is hiring a security company offering a standard package like Securitas Direct or Prosegur, who typically charge an installation fee of up to €500, and a monthly quota from €29 to €50.
Alternatively, you can buy cameras and sensors online, and set up your own system. The gear might cost you anything from €25 upwards, depending on what you want. Bear in mind, however, that if you are not physically present at your property in Spain, you can’t call out the police on the basis of something you have seen on your home-surveillance equipment. The police will not respond. You have to send someone round to your property, and they have to call the police and be present when the police arrive.
What to do if your property is occupied by squatters in Spain
It depends how quickly you discover them. If you catch them breaking in, or shortly afterwards (within a few hours) it makes sense to call the police, as you have a good chance of having the squatters evicted on the spot, and charged with allanamiento de morada or breaking and entering.. If you have an alarm with one of the police-registered alarm companies they will call the police for you. If you don’t, you will have to be present at the property, or someone else you have authorised to act on your behalf will have to be present when the police are called. Otherwise the police will probably not respond.
If you don’t discover the problem in time, at least within the first 48 hours, then you should contact a lawyer with specialist knowledge of dealing with squatters.