Vacant apartments held for ransom in Spain

A wall of bricks and cement covers the window of a brand new apartment on the ground floor of a quaint building in Barceloneta, a trendy seaside neighbourhood in Barcelona.

Vacant apartments held for ransom in Spain
Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

The goal? To prevent the vacant flat from being taken over by organised gangs who break into empty homes, hand them over to others for a fee who then proceed to hold the owners to ransom — a phenomenon that has homeowners and authorities concerned.

They “look for empty flats online or in public registries to break in,” says Enrique Vendrell, president of Barcelona's College of Property Managers, which groups professionals in the sector.

They then change the locks, hook up the property illegally to electricity, gas and water before selling the keys to squatters keen to make some cash who will demand money from the owners to leave, he adds.

It is difficult to get exact figures on the extent of a relatively-new phenomenon, but the trend is serious enough to worry real estate professionals, home owners and authorities.

Police in the northeastern region of Catalonia where Barcelona is located told AFP they were investigating serious cases of “criminal occupations” of flats, but refused to give further details, such as where the gangs come from.

Meanwhile AFP contacted several victims but they all declined to tell their story for fear of retaliation from the squatters, who often threaten homeowners if confronted.

“Ring the doorbell again and you will regret it,” squatters told an elderly woman when she confronted a group of people who were illegally occupying her apartment, her lawyer Jose Maria Aguila said.

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Juan Carlos Parra, a salesman with security firm STM Seguridad which specialises in installing steel doors in buildings, says there is strong demand for “advanced security systems.”

“Demand has taken off in the last three years, we install around 1,500 doors a month across Spain,” he adds.

The problem stems in part from the collapse of a decade-long property bubble in 2008 that left thousands of buildings empty across Spain.

There are 3.4 million empty properties in Spain, the equivalent of 13.7 percent of all real estate in the country, the national statistics institute says.

Many are in the hands of banks which inherited them after builders or buyers were unable to pay back their loans.

Just in Catalonia alone, banks own 45,000 empty apartments, according to the regional government's housing department.

These are the most sought after since lenders usually take longer to act against an occupation.

Such is the problem of squatting in vacant flats that it has given rise to a firm called Desokupa that specialises in evicting squatters.

The company based in Catalonia and Madrid insists its employees carry out “respectful mediation” between the property owners and the squatters.

If that fails though, it employs burly former boxers and security guards to stand guard outside an occupied apartment to drive away the squatters.

But Vendrell says there is a difference between squatters looking for a place to live because they have fallen on hard times or who remain in their flat as they can't pay rent, and gangs who take over properties.

He says these organised groups charge less than 1,000 euros ($1,100) per apartment seized.

Those who take over the flats then typically demand between 3,000 and 6,000 euros to leave.

And in some cases, owners prefer to pay to save time.

Antoni Garriga, a lawyer with Navarro Advocats who often deals with eviction cases, says it can take six to eight months for an eviction notice to be issued.

The process can take even longer if the illegal occupants manage to evade court notifications to leave the apartment, he adds.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, a former anti-eviction activist, argues reducing the number of empty apartments would go a long way to solving the problem.

“We need more empty homes to be offered as social rental housing,” she said in a recent interview with Antena 3 television.

For members


EXPLAINED: What you need to know about locksmiths in Spain

If you get locked out, have a break-in or need to change or fix the door lock at your home in Spain, here are the rates and advice you need before calling a Spanish locksmith (cerrajero).

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about locksmiths in Spain

Like anywhere, locksmiths are generally expensive and the price can vary greatly depending on the service you need and where you are.

It also depends on when you need them, as it’ll cost much more to call them out on a Saturday night than a Monday morning, for example.

Nor would it cost the same to open your front door as it would a reinforced security door.

But locksmiths don’t just make copies of keys and bail you out when you’re stuck outside your flat.

They also offer a whole host of different services including, but not limited to, opening safes, creating master keys, installing security doors, anti-drill doors, cutting specialist locks that reject copied keys, and even unlocking the boot of your car.

How much does a locksmith cost in Spain?

Given all these variables, the price can range massively.

According to Cronoshare, the average price for a nationwide call out in Spain can start from €80 anywhere up to €400.

On average, for a basic service, you can expect to pay anywhere between €40-€70 an hour for the labour, with the price of changing or installing a basic lock anywhere between €80-€200. 

For basic door openings, it depends on the situation you find yourself in: for doors locked with a key, which is a more complex task, prices average around €200, and for doors that are jammed or slammed shut, slightly cheaper in the €80-€100 range.

For an armoured or security door, prices can start at around €300.

In short, a general rule is that the more complex the task is, the higher the prices.

And as always, prices can vary depending on where you are in Spain, the quality of the locksmith, the time of the day and week you need his or her services, and if its a public holiday or not. 

So, as always, compare prices to try and find the most economical solution without skimping on quality.

As such, the following rates are estimations taken from average prices from locksmith.

Weekend/holiday rates

Where prices can really start to add up, however, is when you have an emergency situation requiring a locksmith’s assistance at the weekend, on a public holiday, or outside of normal working hours.

And if you live in Spain, you probably know there’s quite a few of those days throughout the year.

If you really need a cerrajero on a public holiday or during non-working hours (usually defined as anything between 8pm-8am) prices can reach €300 or €500 due to the fact you’ll have to cover the cost of travel, which starts from around €40 plus the increased rate.

Then you must also include the price of labour to the flat rate, which is usually somewhere between €40 and €70 an hour regardless of when you call them out.

Key vocabulary 

We’ve put together some of the basic vocabulary you might need if you find yourself needing a locksmith while in Spain.

el cerrajero – locksmith

la llave – the key

la llave de repuesto – the spare key

la puerta – the door

la cerradura – the lock

la bisagra – the hinge

día festivo – public holiday

cambio de bombín – change of cylinder lock

puerta blindada – armoured door

coste de mano de obra – labour costs

quedarse afuera – get locked out 

puerta cerrada de un portazo – door slammed shut

puerta cerrada con llave – locked door

Tips relating to choosing a good locksmith in Spain 

If you’ve just started renting a new place or have bought a property, it’s advisable to change the lock as you don’t know who has keys to your front door. If you’re a tenant, try to negotiate this with your landlord as it’s in both of your interests that only you two have keys to the property.

If there has been a burglary in your property while you’re living in it and there’s no sign of forced entry, then there’s a very big chance that the burglars had a copy of your keys, and you should definitely change the locks. 

If you’ve lost your keys and you think it happened close to your home, again it’s advisable for you to change the locks.

One of the best ways to avoid being locked out and having to cough up a hefty sum is to give a spare set to someone that you trust that lives in your town or city in Spain. 

When it comes to choosing a locksmith in Spain, you should make sure he or she is a reputable one. Asking friends and family first can be your first port of call.

If not, make sure you read reviews online if available to get any insight beforehand.

In order to avoid any nasty surprises, ask them on the phone for a budget (presupuesto) for all the costs attached to their services before accepting.

Be wary of cerrajeros that automatically want to change the whole lock when a simpler and less costly option is possible. 

Usually they should offer you a contract for you to read carefully before signing. It should include a three-month guarantee for the potential new lock or at least a breakdown of the costs.

Make sure that they are not charging you an excessively high price if it’s an emergency, as this is not actually legal.

There’s also asking them to prove their accreditation with the Unión Cerrajeros de Seguridad (UCES).

Weekend and holiday rates can be higher nonetheless, so consider your options and if it’s worth staying with a friend or family member for a night to save some money. A trustworthy and honest cerrajero will let you know about the money you could save if you choose to wait as well.