A guide to unoccupied buildings

06 December 2023

Taking a proactive approach to managing unoccupied churches can help preserve these buildings for future use.

Light shining through a church window

Churches that are not in use are visited less often and are not likely to benefit from regular maintenance. This makes them more susceptible to damage including:

  • Fire caused by arson or a defective electrical installation
  • Vandalism including malicious damage and graffiti
  • Theft, for example, damage to the building when gaining access, theft of building materials and contents
  • General deterioration caused by adverse weather or water ingress, possibly as a consequence of lack of maintenance
  • Squatters.

As such there are some extra precautions to take that will help you care for your church whilst it is empty.

Shutting down your church

Utility services must be disconnected whilst the property is unoccupied, except where there are existing security systems, fire protection systems, security lighting or sprinkler systems. Installed services should be maintained to ensure they continue to be fully effective at all times.

  • Central heating systems must be drained down. Where water systems cannot be isolated and drained down, a minimum temperature of 7°C must be maintained within the property at all times.
  • Letterboxes must be sealed or, if this is not possible, a metal box or cage must be fitted to the inside of the letterbox. Any post should be removed on a regular basis and arrangements made with the Post Office for mail to be redirected.
  • Redundant contents must be removed from the premises, as should all waste and unfixed combustible materials both internally and externally.
  • Risk assessments for fire, health and safety and asbestos must be reviewed in light of the changing circumstances. Any appropriate control measures which reduce the risk of injury to any visitors should be implemented or maintained.
  • Oil tanks located in the grounds of the site should be drained down.
  • Keys should be recalled, otherwise, locks should be changed.

You should also consider how you communicate the church’s closure to the community. If you have social media channels, particularly those with subscriptions you pay for, they should be cancelled.

Insurance for unoccupied churches

  • Due to the extra risk associated with closed churches, when a church is going to be unoccupied you will need to let us know so we can update your church insurance policy.
  • It is a requirement of church insurance cover that unoccupied buildings are inspected by you, or your appointed representative, on a regular basis. This is to ensure that if damage has occurred e.g. criminal damage to the property, it can be identified and rectified at the earliest opportunity. This helps to mitigate any further damage that may occur if problems are left undetected for an extended period. Any damage identified, whether insured or not, should be reported to your insurers and the police if crime-related.
  • A record of inspections must be maintained as evidence. A template inspection record sheet can be found at the end of our management of unoccupied churches and related premises guidance note.

Frequently asked questions

Yes, you can, and you must contact us to discuss the situation and the reasons why you wish to maintain the heating, and the heating remaining on, as we normally require central heating systems to be drained down.

Where water systems cannot be isolated and drained down, there will be certain conditions you must meet, and these are listed below.

Where you are keeping the heating on, you must maintain the central heating system to prevent freezing and:

  • The system should be inspected to ensure it operates correctly whenever such buildings are inspected.
  • The temperature throughout the building must be maintained at not less than 7 degrees Centigrade (45 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • The system must be serviced and maintained at least annually by an appropriately qualified engineer.

A lot can happen in a brief period; for example, small amounts of malicious damage can quickly turn into an arson incident or unauthorised access to the site, for example, squatters at the premises.

Maintaining a visible presence at the church gives the appearance of the church being in some form of use. Also, the sooner you can identify an issue, the quicker you can rectify it.

We actively encourage you to bring the church back into use. You must contact us to let us know how you will use the building. The policy cover, terms and premium may need to be changed to reflect this.

The biggest risk for unoccupied properties is fire, including arson; for this reason, storing combustible items in the church can increase the risk of fire spreading and make it a target for break-ins and theft.

We appreciate that the building may have only been used for a while. However, when the property is not in use on a permanent basis, we find that the general maintenance of the building may reduce, and unoccupied buildings are more likely to be targeted for vandalism and malicious damage.

Our experience shows that unoccupied properties are more susceptible to damage through arson, crime, and potentially squatters, and the premium must reflect this increased risk. You can reduce the premium by reducing the sum insured, taking a higher excess or bringing the property back into use.

If you cannot comply with the inspection frequency, please contact us to discuss your options.

Please be advised that church halls do not follow the same criteria for closure or redundancy. Where there is no more use of the building the church would usually remain responsible for the church hall until a sale is completed.

If the building is going to be unoccupied for some time before the start of or following the completion of building works, please get in touch with us as soon as possible, as it may be necessary for us to amend your cover. In particular, if your contract involves work using heat, for example, leadwork on roofs.

Not all churches that need to close for a while will follow the same process. For example, you may have a property undergoing building works that will not be used in that period for worship. In this situation, we would ask you to contact us to discuss your situation with one of our expert team members who can talk to you about your options.

Chris Brudenell - Customer Relationship Manager