For many urban explorers, getting permission to explore abandoned buildings and other facilities never crosses their minds. Some urbex enthusiasts argue that getting approval to enter a site detracts from the exciting, rebellious undercurrent that drew them to urbex in the first place. Other explorers are convinced that they’d never be granted the permission they seek, so there’s no reason to even bother asking.
However, getting the necessary approvals to explore abandoned buildings may not be the buzzkill or impossible task you might think, and it can protect you from criminal or civil charges should you get caught while exploring. Keep reading to find out why it’s worth taking the time to ask permission to enter a structure and strategies for getting the property owner to say yes.
Looking for additional resources relating to finding and exploring abandoned buildings? Here are some great options:
- Top 10 Tips for New Urban Explorers: How To Succeed In Urbex
- How To Find Abandoned Places With Google Maps In 2020
- Exploring Abandoned Churches: The 10 Great Commandments
- Exploring Abandoned Hospitals and Asylums: A 2020 Primer
Why Ask for Permission to Explore Abandoned Buildings?
There are several convincing reasons for seeking approval to enter property that doesn’t belong to you.
Perhaps the most important reason to ask before you enter is that it could keep you out of legal trouble. If you are caught on private property by the owner or law enforcement and you don’t have permission to be there, you could face criminal charges of trespassing or breaking and entering, which could bring consequences like probation, fines, jail time and a permanent blemish on your criminal record.
However, asking for the property owner’s blessing can also help you more easily gain access to the building or structure, and they may be willing to help you explore areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. It’s much easier to ask the owner to let you in than to have to search for (or create) an entry point. They may also have information about damage or structural issues with the building that can help you stay safe while exploring.
Finally, the site’s owner can also provide insight into the history and use of the location, adding colorful detail that will make your visit and photos more meaningful.
Before Asking, Do Your Research on Abandoned Buildings
You should always begin the urban exploration process with in-depth research about the site you want to visit, but it’s especially important to do your homework before contacting a stranger and asking to enter their property.
First, try to find out why the building was abandoned or shuttered. If a home has been empty since a brutal crime occurred there, contacting the family to ask to see inside may reopen old emotional wounds and cause additional harm, and they’re also unlikely to say yes.
On the other hand, if a site is closed due to historic or environmental protections, you may have a decent chance of getting inside if you craft your request carefully (more on that later).
If a site was deemed off-limits by a government agency due to environmental or safety hazards, your chances of getting inside legally are almost zero. In these circumstances, you may opt to enter first and ask forgiveness later if you’re caught, but you should also weigh the potential safety and health risks before going inside.
Locating the Property Owner of Abandoned Buildings
Finding out who owns a site can be relatively easy, thanks to the power of online search engines and publicly available data. Typically, the most accurate source of information will be the government of the county in which the facility is located.
A search for the county property appraiser’s website should yield a page where you can enter the address or parcel number of the place you’re interested in visiting and find out the owner’s name and other information, such as the property’s sales history.
If the building is owned by a commercial enterprise, you can search for a business website or social media account that may provide contact information for the owner or property manager. If you can’t find anything, you may be able to find additional detail through the Better Business Bureau. If all else fails, a plug-in called Hunter.io searches the website you’re browsing to reveal hidden email addresses for people associated with the site.
If the property is on the market, you can try contacting the real estate agent managing the sale; they may be willing to let you inside under the pretense of a potential purchase.
If the building is owned by a private individual, an online search of their name paired with the address may yield some form of contact information. You may also be able to find and communicate with them through social media accounts like Facebook or LinkedIn.
Convincing the Owner to Say Yes
Now that you’ve identified the property owner and have a bit more information about the abandoned buildings history, it’s time to prepare your approach for gaining permission to enter. Most successful requests include two key components: reassuring the owner about the potential risks they face in granting your request and establishing the credibility of your reasons for wanting to go inside in the first place.
Whether via email or physical mail, your request should open with the person’s name, not a vague “To Whom it May Concern” or the generic “Property Owner.” Using the individual’s name shows that you’ve taken the time to research the property and find out who’s responsible for it, and it also catches their attention and increases the likelihood that they’ll respond.
Next, identify yourself in a way that clearly states your motivation for entering the property. Never refer to yourself as an “urban explorer”—unless they share your interest in the hobby, they’ve probably never heard of urbex and won’t understand what it means or what your intentions are.
Instead, describe yourself as a photographer, historian, researcher, writer or journalist; these professions are generally well-respected and clearly indicate that your motives for entering the premises are honest and constructive.
Throughout your communication, your tone should be professional, yet friendly. Use formal sentence structure and grammar, even if you’re sending a Facebook message or text, as it lends credibility and authority to your request. Always send it through software to check your grammar and spelling, and if possible, have a detail-oriented friend review it and offer feedback.
Below is an example of an effective email to the owner of an abandoned property:
“Dear Mr. Michaelson,
I am a writer and photojournalist in Pleasantville, and I frequently travel the region looking for unique and interesting homes to document. I was recently in your area and was intrigued by the striking home at 111 Crabgrass Court. I was hoping you’d be willing to let me take some photos of the property, and I’m happy to share them with you if you’d be interested. Some of my past work is available for you to review at www.philphotographer.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks in advance,
This professionally-written email identifies the owner by name, gets straight to the point and establishes constructive, mutually beneficial motives for the request. It also invites the property owner to find out more about the person making the request, which reflects transparency and builds trust. In many cases, owners are flattered by this type of positive attention and will at least entertain the request, if not grant it outright.
Checking with the Neighbors
If your initial searches don’t turn up the property owner (or their contact information), a last resort is knocking on the neighbors’ door to see if they can help. Introduce yourself, explain what you’re hoping to do regarding the abandoned buildings and ask if they know who owns the property and how you can get in touch with them.
Use the same approach outlined for sending an email or letter, being friendly but professional and identifying yourself as a photographer, historian or writer. In some cases, the neighbors may be willing to share the owner’s contact information or pass yours along to the owner, or they may have additional insight about the property’s current status.
At the very least, by making yourself and your plans known to the neighbors, you may reduce the risk of them calling law enforcement if they later see you entering the property, since they may assume you were able to find the owner and secure permission to explore.
If the owner flat-out denies your request to explore their property, you have two options: respect their wishes or attempt to enter in spite of them. If you choose the latter, know that the risk of getting caught in abandoned buildings has increased because you’re now on the owner’s radar, and they may be keeping a closer eye on the property to protect it from peering eyes and curious explorers.
If you opt for the former, you can always check back with the owner in a few months in case they’ve had a change of heart (or if the building has a change in ownership). In the meantime, start scouting other, more accessible places to explore.
Proceeding without a Clear Answer
If you can’t locate the property owner or you don’t get any response to your request, you may decide to go ahead and take your chances on getting inside. If this is the route you take, be sure to follow the fundamental guidelines of urban exploring:
- Be sure the building is truly vacant by checking for lights, cars and other signs of occupancy.
- Wear appropriate protective gear, including sturdy boots or shoes, rugged pants, long-sleeved shirt and gloves.
- Bring a partner if possible, and if you go alone, be sure someone knows where you’ll be and when to expect you back.
- If you’re caught inside by the owner or law enforcement, be respectful, apologize and offer to leave immediately.
- Don’t damage the property in any way, even to gain entry, and don’t take anything from the site. As the urbex maxim commands, “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.”
Final Thoughts on Getting Permission to Explore Abandoned Buildings
Urban exploring is an incredibly rewarding hobby, in no small part due to the sense of adventure and discovery that it provides. Entering places that few other people even know exist can be thrilling, like you’re in on some kind of wild and wonderful secret.
While asking for permission to enter a site may initially seem antithetical to the element of danger and risk that make urbex so exciting, it can also enrich your urbex experience by eliminating the anxiety you may feel about being caught and providing you with enhanced access to the site.
While the decision to seek approval before entering a building is one each urban explorer must make for themselves, the reasons to do so are compelling, and you should at least give them some consideration before you move forward with your visit.