Whether in a city or a rural location, wherever you go, you can see the ghosts of past businesses with abandoned buildings left behind, slowly disintegrating.
Why are these buildings abandoned and left to rot?
1. What is an Abandoned Building?
There is no strict definition of what classes as an abandoned commercial building.
Each state and country have different rules involving:
- Occupancy – most expect a building to be unused for at least six months.
- Evidence of a lack of repairs and maintenance.
- Non-payment of property taxes relating to the property.
A building may look derelict and unloved, but it may have an active legal owner fulfilling the requirement to keep the building off the list of abandoned properties.
2. Why Are Buildings Abandoned in America?
The reasons why a business or property owner may walk away include:
High Cost of Repairs and Renovation
The cost of maintaining and running a building may not justify the expense when you look at the bottom line.
It may be sound business sense to walk away and find a new building for your business.
The building may remain on the company books as an asset, but in practice, it is forgotten and left to decay.
If the building isn’t up to code for environmental or access reasons, the cost of complying with the regulations may be prohibitive.
Most businesses will do a cost-benefit analysis and may choose to put up a fence and walk away.
Perhaps the building doesn’t meet fire safety standards or has an issue with asbestos.
Building codes and health legislation may mean that the building isn’t worth updating to current standards compared with a newer building.
If the neighborhood suffers an increase in violence or a loss of income, then businesses don’t want to rent or buy property in that area.
There is no point in opening a shop without customers, and office workers don’t want to feel unsafe getting to and from work.
Neighborhoods can stagnate or deteriorate for many reasons; one of the first signs of a decline in an area is when landlords and business owners put on the padlocks and board up their buildings.
Aftermath of a Disaster
Fire, floods, hurricanes, and other natural or manmade disasters can result in the evacuation of an area.
Many of these property owners never return to their buildings, and individual reasons can range from a lack of funds or energy to starting again.
The building may sustain too much damage, and the owners simply lack the means or the will to put it right.
It may be better for the property owner to take the insurance payout and leave the property behind.
Some property owners lack the necessary insurance for a natural disaster, and government help is patchy. As a result, you get abandoned buildings following a disaster.
Boom and Bust
The economy goes through cycles.
During the depression years, businesses abandon buildings.
When the good years come back, not all these buildings are desirable or marketable; as time passes, they become derelict and less attractive to potential businesses.
The building sales and rental market may mean a glut of available properties compared with demand.
The excess buildings remain unoccupied and soon take on the familiar appearance of a zombie building.
Fear of Loss
Selling a property may crystalize a financial loss in company accounts.
A business may leave an empty property waiting for the market to improve or the value of the underlying land to increase.
It may be surprising, but a huge property company may “forget” about a property written down to a low value in the asset register.
Without regular attention, the property may move into the abandoned category.
Changing Business Models
The recent global pandemic means many businesses have embraced remote working, and some may never need to occupy the same type of building again.
The move to online shopping means companies can exist without a direct retail outlet and use different methods of stock storage.
When businesses change how they work, the buildings that don’t fit these new ways of working are abandoned, and not all of these are suitable for redevelopment.
A building may be neglected because of inheritance or divorce disputes. The situation can be complicated when a business owner dies, depending on the will and the business structure.
A bank may foreclose on a commercial mortgage which gives it the ownership of the building, and in a poor market, it may have to hold onto it.
A company can go into liquidation, and the liquidator may be unable to sell the property.
You can have a dispute over the land that renders the property unusable for years.
Many legal issues may result in a derelict, empty building while the parties concerned argue over rights and ownership.
3. Why Are Buildings Abandoned in Europe?
Commercial buildings are abandoned in Europe for the same reasons as in the US.
Depending on the country, there may be some additional factors:
In some European countries, you continue to pay property taxes on empty but intact buildings.
The unforeseen consequence of this law is that property owners who need to vacate a building are incentivized to remove the roof.
Once the roof is gone, the building no longer attracts property taxes, but it also means the building is not reusable without extensive renovation.
Europe has many protected properties.
The owner cannot repurpose the building, nor can they demolish it.
Many owners simply leave the building to deteriorate, hoping it will suffer a catastrophic accident and free them from the burden of keeping it.
Halt in Construction
If the funds run out during a construction project in Europe, the building can remain as an unfinished shell for a long time.
Depending on where you are in Europe, it can be a habit to start building, stop, and resume when funds permit.
These buildings look abandoned but are a work in progress that may or may not get finished.
Europe has a lot of history and a lot of redundant buildings, not all of which get repurposed for use in today’s world.
Across Europe, you can find old warehouses built when the primary way of moving goods was via a canal, factories where the work has shifted to Asia, and infrastructure from previous wars.
4. What Happens to Abandoned Buildings?
The fate of an abandoned building depends on where it is and local conditions.
Some buildings quietly deteriorate, and nature moves in to create a small wild space with the building structure providing shelter for birds, bats, and other animals.
This fate is most likely in rural locations, but some city center buildings become a haven for wildlife.
If the wildlife is endangered, the facility may fall under protection for its contribution to biodiversity.
A local group may petition to take over the building to maintain its features if the building has a cultural or historical significance in an area.
In some cases, the state government may adopt it as one of its important buildings.
These buildings may become tourist attractions and museums.
Alternatively, they may be largely demolished, with only the historical portions of the building left on display.
Repurposed as Homes
Some developers actively seek out abandoned buildings with an interesting history to create bespoke luxury homes or offices.
Previously unattractive and unwanted abandoned buildings can take on a new lease of life provided the market conditions are right for development – location is a crucial factor.
The local government may intervene when an abandoned building contributes to local issues.
These issues can include rough sleepers, arson, and criminal enterprise.
Suppose an abandoned property is blighting a neighborhood. In that case, it may be beneficial for the local government to pay to have the property upgraded and brought back into use or demolished and returned to bare earth.
The fate of many abandoned buildings is to have everything of value stripped and stolen.
Everything from scrap metal to interesting architectural features may be removed and sold by enterprising urban miners.
Sometimes the stripping of the building is with the owner’s consent, but frequently it is an opportunistic theft by people trying to make a quick buck or wanting some free building materials.
If you need a home and uncover an abandoned building, moving in and setting up a home or business may be tempting.
A squatter is a person who occupies property without the owner’s permission. Depending on state rules, a squatter can obtain a legitimate right to ownership of the building.
In Iowa, the period of adverse ownership is as little as three years.
Still, in New Jersey, you need twenty years of continuous occupation to establish a legitimate claim against the owner.
A new or existing owner may get around to restoring the abandoned property for use.
A landlord may find a tenant, and a legal dispute may resolve, allowing a legal owner to take care of the property.
This result is usually when the property appears abandoned but is only mothballed.
If the land is more valuable and useful than the building, a new owner is most likely to demolish and remove the existing building to give them a clean start on their proposed development.
The effort necessary to remove an existing building may be minimal depending on the construction and age of the building.
An owner may profit more by removing the building and offering a vacant lot for sale.
5. Is Going into an Abandoned Building Illegal?
Typically, someone owns the abandoned building, and entering a building (abandoned or otherwise) classes as trespass.
Trespass is a civil issue, and you are unlikely to face legal action for having a look around – but there may be additional legislation in place depending on the importance of the building.
It is always best to seek the owner’s permission before exploring an abandoned building.
Your presence may be interpreted as a criminal activity if it seems likely that you are searching for scrap metal or intending some other prohibited activity.
Additionally, abandoned buildings are often unsafe because the structure is deteriorating, and the building is not maintained.
If you get injured in the building and attempt to sue the owner for damages, expect a countersuit to prove you were engaging in an illegal enterprise.
Exploring abandoned buildings (aka Urban Exploring) is growing in popularity because you can snap incredible photos and may spot some fascinating wildlife or architecture.
But the legality is questionable; if you can’t track down the owner, be polite if asked to leave and avoid carrying anything (like a screwdriver) that makes it look like you intend to break into the building.
6. Why Aren’t Abandoned Buildings Demolished?
An owner may choose to leave an abandoned building standing because:
- Demolishing costs money but doing nothing is free.
- Potentially the building will sell for a profit.
- Historic buildings may be protected from destruction.
- Expecting to rent or occupy the property later.
Unless the owner needs the land, there is little incentive to do anything with an abandoned building.
In an urban setting, taking down a building is prohibitively expensive, requiring expensive machinery and labor to dismantle and dispose of the building.
7. Why Do Some Abandoned Buildings Have Power?
The reasons why an abandoned building may have enough power to switch on the lights include:
- Off-grid power source – depending on when the building was abandoned, it may have solar panels or another power source, meaning the light still functions.
- The owner is still maintaining the building – the building may only seem abandoned. The owner is actively looking to sell the building and is still heating and cooling it to keep it in useable condition.
- The power company doesn’t know it is abandoned – the default position is to leave the building attached to power. It takes effort to cut a building off from power. If the bills are paid, and energy use isn’t triggering new bills, the power company has no reason to cut power.
- The building isn’t unoccupied – if somebody is using the building (legally or otherwise), they may be paying for a power supply.
- Security measure – the building may have an alarm system to alert the owner to unwanted visitors and make it difficult for people to strip out the electric components.
8. Why Do Abandoned Buildings Have Security?
Empty buildings attract kids and adults as a potential playground or opportunity for profit.
If the building contains valuable materials or is unsafe, it makes sense to have security to prevent thieves and thrill-seekers from entering the premises.
Security for abandoned buildings means the owners:
- Keep the maximum salvage value for themselves.
- Keep the building fit for resale or reuse.
- Stop criminals and other people from illegal use of the building.
- Prevent potential accidents to people trespassing.
- Minimize the potential for arson and vandalism.
- Prevent the loss of ownership from squatting.
If the building is an asset, it is worth paying for security to keep the property safe from harm.
9. Why Do Abandoned Buildings Decay So Fast?
A building needs regular care and maintenance; otherwise, it breaks down because of the action of:
- Weather – high winds and hot sun start to break down the structure within a year.
- Water finds all the weak spots and will pool where it can. The freeze-thaw cycle causes further damage, and wet wood soon rots.
- Nature – weeds will sprout in any crevice, and insects and other animals will add to structural damage.
- Materials – the construction may contribute to rapid decay or greater longevity under the vegetation.
- No maintenance – a tiny crack will grow and bring down a ceiling, and a missing shingle will let in water.
- Humans – forcible removable of valuable metals and materials weakens the structure of the building and opens it to environmental damage.
A combination of factors results in the rapid decay of abandoned buildings.
Fast-growing weeds and shrubs may make a building look more run down and wild within a year.
Almost every town and city has one or more abandoned commercial buildings. These may be buildings awaiting a new use or may not suit today’s needs.
Buildings are left for a variety of reasons, but they all have the potential to live again when market conditions and human needs change.
Some people see abandoned buildings as an eyesore and a symbol of urban decay; others see opportunities for new growth and historical echoes.