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The Times : TV’s heir hunters help councils to buy empty homes

TheTimes

padraic

Five councils have hired professional heir hunters to trace who owns abandoned properties so they can be bought for social housing.

The Dublin office of Finders International, a London company that features in the BBC series Heir Hunters, has located the owners of 44 properties since May for local authorities including Louth and Fingal.

Probate genealogists who work for Finders are often used by Irish solicitors to trace missing or unknown beneficiaries to estates when a person dies without making a will.

The company is putting the same skills at the disposal of councils that are keen to buy vacant properties.

Pádraic Grennan, Finders’ business development manager, said: “It’s essentially the same type of work: tracing families and next of kin. By finding and bringing the owners to a council, we eliminate the risk of a challenge to a local authority’s compulsory purchase order (CPO) process further down the line.”

While CPOs are typically used to buy land to build motorways or railways, Séamus Woulfe, the attorney general, is reported to have advised the government that they could be used by local authorities to force property owners to rent or sell houses vacant for a year or more.

The 2016 census indicated there were 183,000 vacant homes in Ireland, excluding second homes or holiday homes, although the Department of Housing and some councils believe the figure is overstated.

Fingal said it contacted Finders after running “into a few dead-ends in our attempts to identify owners of some vacant homes”.

The local authority, which has 7,949 people on its social-housing list, says it has had “a few successes . . . and hopefully these will result in vacant houses being converted into social housing”.

In December, taoiseach Leo Varadkar cited Louth county council as a model for the increased use of CPOs to acquire uninhabited homes. Since the end of 2015, the council has acquired 64 vacant properties, with 12 owners located via Finders.

Joe McGuinness, director of housing services at the council, said: “We do a Land Registry search as part of the appraisal process, but if there’s a unit with no registered owner, we need a specialist. If we were to build a new house from scratch, it would take three years.”

One case handled by Finders in Dundalk involved a vacant house bought in 1972 by a Monaghan woman and her American-born husband as a retirement home.

Tommy Dalton McKevitt, a neighbour, cut the grass, trimmed the hedge and even paid the electricity bill in the expectation that the couple would return. “Every year, she’d send me $1,000 to keep heating and electricity going,” he said. After the woman died, he notified Louth county council.

Finders discovered the woman, who had moved to New York in 1958, left her estate to a former tenant. Probate researchers found the heir’s family in Ireland and the US, which eventually led to the man contacting the company.

This article has been first published in the times