There are instances where the owner of a property is unknown, making it difficult to determine how the property should be dealt with, especially from the viewpoint of a prospective buyer.

In such circumstances, the first step to identifying a property owner in England is to search the index map ("SIM") at the Land Registry.

This search is relatively inexpensive and can be conducted online using a plan of the property and an indicative address. The search results are usually available within three to four working days.

The Land Registry maintains a record of all registered land and property in England, and a SIM search may reveal the registered title to the property.

This, in turn, enables you to download an official copy of the title register and identify the name and correspondence address of the registered owner of the property.

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Unregistered properties

If the property is unregistered, the SIM result will confirm that there are no registered titles within the relevant search area.

A search may then need to be conducted at the local council to see if any information can be found about the property or its previous owners.

If the searches with Land Registry and local council do not produce conclusive information about the owner, it may be worth posting a notice at the property or placing an advertisement in a local newspaper asking for any information about the owner.

If all investigations prove unsuccessful, there is a chance that the owner of the property may have died intestate and had no relatives to which their estate could be passed on.

In the case of a company, even if it is registered as the property owner, it may have since been dissolved.

In such circumstances, there is a possibility that the property may have become "bona vacantia".

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Bona vacantia is a Latin term, and the literal meaning is "vacant goods", which effectively means a property with no owner.

If any property in England becomes bona vacantia, it is deemed the property of the Crown.

The Crown has a department called the Bona Vacantia Division (BVD), which deals with these types of assets.

The BVD's role is to collect the assets, sell them, and then distribute the proceeds to the Treasury.

If a person is interested in buying a property which they believe to be bona vacantia, they will need to contact the BVD to confirm the property's status and make an offer.

The BVD will then (at its discretion) either disclaim the property, agree to sell it to the prospective buyer for its market value or decide to sell it at public auction.

The BVD will not deal with property valued at less than £1,000 (plus their costs must be paid in all transactions).

If the BVD accepts the offer, the purchaser will need to go through the usual process of buying a property and transferring legal ownership.

This is likely to involve instructing a solicitor to act on behalf of the buyer, and the Treasury Solicitor would act on behalf of the Crown.

If the property involves a commercial lease or is considered onerous for any reason, the BVD usually disclaims such assets.

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Risks of purchasing bona vacantia property

There are, however, risks of purchasing bona vacantia property which buyers should consider:

  1. The title documents may be missing or incomplete, and it may be difficult to establish the chain of ownership for registration purposes in the case of unregistered land. This could also lead to disputes with third parties who may claim an interest in or rights over the property, which are not obvious from an initial inspection. Therefore, a thorough title investigation should be completed before exchanging contracts to purchase the property.
  2. The property may have been unoccupied for a prolonged period which could give rise to the need for substantial repairs and maintenance. Therefore, obtaining a professional survey of the property before committing to the purchase is important. As with all properties, it is also necessary to consider commissioning an environmental survey to establish possible contamination or pollution, which could give rise to environmental liability notices for which the buyer would be liable. 
  3. In some cases, the Crown may not provide a warranty for title to the bona vacantia properties, which would mean that the buyers would have no legal recourse against the Crown if any title issues arose after the sale.

Overall, buyers should approach purchases of bona vacantia properties cautiously and seek professional advice to understand the legal and practical issues that may arise.

The solicitors in our Commercial Property team are experienced in assisting with title investigations and property purchases.

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Contact our team of expert commercial property lawyers if you have any questions regarding properties with unidentified owners: