The historic Union Printers Home building in Colorado Springs, Colorado, sustained more than $250,000 in damages after thieves stripped the property of copper wiring and tubing on July 6. According to reports, a maintenance worker notified police of the theft in progress and two of the suspects were arrested as they left the building. The next day, additional suspects returned to cut more copper pipes and wiring and a third individual was arrested.
The quarter-million-dollar loss estimate provided by police includes damage to the building due to the theft and the stolen wiring, Fox 21 News reported. The same suspects may have also been involved in other large copper thefts that have been occurring recently, police said.
Built in 1892, the Union Printers Home is a landmark in the region and was most recently used as an assisted living facility until it closed in 2020. According to the property’s website, new owners purchased the historic building in 2021 and have plans to redevelop it.
This building was likely targeted because it is situated on a 26-acre plot of land, and it is just becoming more common out here to see these incidents at large buildings, vacant buildings, and construction sites.
When a property is vacant, it is at a higher risk for vandalism and theft, which could be covered by Commercial Property Insurance or Homeowners Insurance, said Jenna Zalud, Manager, Personal Insurance, Burns & Wilcox, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“Security is so important in these buildings, whether they are private homes or commercial properties,” Zalud said. “Insurance coverage can really depend on whether it is owner-occupied, vacant, or tenant-occupied, and what policy forms you have in place.”
Increased risk of theft, vandalism at vacant properties
Vacant and abandoned properties have been associated with higher rates of theft and other public safety risks, the Center for Community Progress noted this year. According to a 2022 report from the New York Times, census data from 2020 showed that almost 1 in 10 homes in the U.S. were vacant at the time the data was taken. In Toronto, Ontario, a new vacant home tax was rolled out earlier this year in an effort to increase housing supply, CBC News reported in January; previously, census data showed that Canada had 1.31 million vacant homes in 2021, Better Dwelling reported.
Security is so important in these buildings, whether they are private homes or commercial properties.
There has also been a rise in vacant office space in some areas due to the increase in remote work during the pandemic, Fox Business reported in April. “A lot of businesses may have gone completely remote, many shut down during COVID, and others could be remodeling and facing construction delays and so they are still vacant,” Brazil said. “Vacant properties are sort of wide open. They are having a lot of losses recently.”
After a theft at a commercial building, the owner’s Commercial Property Insurance could cover the replacement of stolen items along with the cost of repairing physical damage done to the building. Sublimits for theft are possible and would vary by policy. “Theft is one of the basic perils,” Brazil said. “If they have Commercial Property Insurance in place, it should be covered, but I would be sure to look out for certain exclusions and any safeguards, like fencing, that may be required for a vacant property.”
The theft of copper wiring in particular is a serious threat for property owners and is on the rise. In Los Angeles, California, a surge in copper wire thefts in recent months even impacted the area’s Metro system after thieves stole copper wires used to power rail cars, the Los Angeles Times recently reported. In New Brunswick, Canada, copper theft is “rampant,” CBC News reported in March, with one homeowner saying her home needed $50,000 in repairs after thieves stole copper wiring and pipes from the property while it was being renovated.
“It can be very costly,” Brazil said of copper thefts. When the building is historic, such as the Union Printers Home recently targeted in Colorado, there may be additional costs incurred, as municipalities may have rules about the type of work that can be done on the building and the materials that can be used. “Even if it is not on the historic registry, the losses can be astronomical,” he said.
Some markets do not offer any theft or vandalism coverage for vacant properties. Verifying your insurance coverage and asking questions to your broker is very important.
The same goes for homeowners, Zalud explained. “If all of the wiring in the house is ripped out, that can be a huge amount of loss for that homeowner,” she said. “It is definitely seen more on vacant homes than anything else. If your property is going to be vacant for more than 60 days, notify your insurance broker and carrier because they could deny coverage for theft or malicious mischief.”
Vandalism and theft on a vacant home will generally be covered by Homeowners Insurance if the property is maintained and being monitored, but “it really depends on the carrier and the coverage,” she added. “Some markets do not offer any theft or vandalism coverage for vacant properties. Verifying your insurance coverage and asking questions to your broker is very important.”
Theft-related damage can escalate if not addressed quickly
When a property is vacant and not being regularly monitored, it is possible for break-ins and thefts to go unnoticed — which can worsen the damage, Brazil and Zalud agreed. For example, a June copper pipe theft from an apartment building in Studio City, California, caused widespread flooding in the building, KABC reported. This type of damage could be catastrophic if not immediately addressed. Other types of losses could occur if damage from the break-in led to fires, water intrusion and mold growth, or animal infestation.
In any type of building, the property damage can sometimes be even more costly than what is stolen.
“Sometimes these losses can go on undiscovered for quite a while, and they can also leave it more susceptible to a larger loss. It can really snowball and be a significant issue,” Brazil said. “We have also seen HVAC systems stolen from the roof where the roof is damaged in the process. In any type of building, the property damage can sometimes be even more costly than what is stolen. It might be theft, or it could be damage that goes unnoticed and the loss quadruples because it went unnoticed for so long.”
Property owners sometimes discover that individuals have been living in their vacant property, he added. “They might have a fire pit in there or a stove — some crazy things can happen when a property is not being managed and checked on,” he said.
This is also part of why Commercial General Liability (CGL) Insurance is still needed for vacant properties, as it can provide coverage for third-party bodily injuries and property damage in the event someone is hurt on the premises. “You definitely want liability coverage on your vacant buildings as well,” Brazil said. “Slip-and-falls have been a massive driver of claims in this area. If you are responsible for maintaining the sidewalk or a parking lot, you need to have liability coverage. Anything can happen and you can be held liable. You will have to defend against the claim even if you are innocent on it, and a lot of times the court costs can exceed the actual loss itself.”
Checking on a property regularly is essential, Zalud said, and can help prevent losses from compounding. For homeowners with seasonal homes, for example, monitoring systems, neighbor check-ins and water-shutoff devices are often recommended. “If you are not there on the weekends, have somebody check in on it,” she said. “Another issue with theft is notifying the insurance company on time. If you find out there has been a theft and you do not report it, it could be denied. Sometimes they notify the police department and forget about the insurance carrier.”
Protecting your property
Homes under construction may need a Builder’s Risk Insurance policy to cover property damage while a home is being renovated, and homeowners with higher-value items like jewelry and artwork should ensure that these items would be covered by their Homeowner Insurance in the event of damage or theft. In some cases, Inland Marine Insurance, also known as a Personal Articles Floater, may be needed.
“Look at your policy and see what is covered,” Zalud advised. “If there is any sublimits on things and if you have anything that is special to you or you know is a higher value than most typical jewelry, you will want to look at getting that scheduled.”
According to the National Crime Prevention Council, steps to prevent theft and vandalism at vacant properties include reporting broken windows and suspicious activity to law enforcement, monitoring vacant properties and addressing overgrown lawns and litter. Property owners may also want to consider risk mitigation efforts like fencing, central station alarm systems and outdoor lighting, some of which could be required in order to obtain insurance coverage, Zalud said.
“Keeping everything as clean and up to date as possible helps,” she said. “The darker your house is, the easier it is for individuals to sneak in. The Ring doorbell cameras are great, but if those are not centrally monitored, you might see something happening but not be able to really stop it. You want something that is going to contact the police department right away.”
Taking these steps can also help with getting the best insurance rates, Brazil added. “The more security features you can add, the better,” he said.