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Intro

When I go exploring, I often find abandoned buildings, farms, factories. Near where I live, it's easy to find abandoned buildings in the mountains or the National Park.

I have an interest in Urbex. I admit some times when I go to the wild I'm actively looking for urban places and ruins to explore. I've been in some amazing places in my country, and I'm always looking for more. However, this is just an interest, not something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Examples

Here's a few examples of places I've been (I don't own these photos):

Abandoned arabic building

Abandoned arabic building

Abandoned hotel

Abandoned hotel (since the 80s I think), in the islands

Abandoned restaurant

Abandoned panoramic restaurant (since the 80s), right next to the country's capital

Abandoned thermal spa

Abandoned thermal spa, popular during the beginning of XX century

Problem

How legal is it to enter these buildings? Can I explore with peace of mind knowing I'm doing nothing wrong or can this be considered trespassing, breaking & entering, burglary or even mischief, even if I'm doing nothing wrong?

I only enter a building if there is an open door (or window, gate, even holes in the walls or fences) and I never break anything. I like to have the same approach as I have in the wild: leave no trace. In my opinion, this is still the wilderness and you can actually find good examples of local flora and fauna inside these buildings.

Also, if there is a sign stating "Private property" or "No enter", I respect the signs and move on. There's plenty more to explore out there.

The arabic building from the picture above, for example, is abandoned but belongs to a complex of buildings on the same area, which I suppose belong to the same owner. As far as I know, there are people who own this building and who are easily identifiable, so I did not go inside.

I understand the laws will be different from country to country, but probably the principles will be the same? And how can I find the relevant laws and analyze them?

Thank you in advance, respect the world.

EDIT

To clarify, the photos were taken in Portugal; but since I also travel around the world (mainly Europe), I would like to know the general principles behind these laws. The answers given so far are interesting on this matter.

Also, one final note just to point the obvious: trespassing, burglary and other offenses can be considered serious crimes in your area. If you believe you might be committing a felony, you should stop and inform yourself first. I believe no one in here endorses illegal activities. :-)

SECOND EDIT

I understand that laws will be different from country to country, no need to keep telling me that. However, the answers given so far are all quite interesting and what I was looking for, so I will keep the question as is. Thanks guys.

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migrated from outdoors.stackexchange.com Feb 5 at 11:45

This question came from our site for people who love outdoor activities, excursions, and outdoorsmanship.

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If you could give a location it would be helpful for those answering. – Swagin9 Feb 4 at 17:14
    
@Swagin9 Yes, it's Portugal. But I also do it in other countries (in Europe), so I was looking for something "somewhat general", if it makes any sense. – Cthulhu Feb 4 at 20:31
up vote 15 down vote accepted

My general belief is that in the United States entering structures like the ones you've pictured would be considered trespassing regardless of if there is a sign in place or not. This is based on the fact that I'm almost certain that if you become injured while on the premises you could sue the land owner. I believe the trespassing signs are just there to give legal cover to the land owner in case someone does try to sue them.

Here are two sources that essentially support my beliefs:

General definition:

Trespass is defined by the act of knowingly entering another person’s property without permission.

More detailed legal definition:

§ 11.411 Criminal trespass.

(a) A person commits an offense if, knowing that he or she is not licensed or privileged to do so, he or she enters or surreptitiously remains in any building or occupied structure. An offense under this subsection is a misdemeanor if it is committed in a dwelling at night. Otherwise it is a petty misdemeanor.

As you can see these buildings are clearly owned by someone, and you clearly haven't gotten permission to enter the building. Ergo, you're trespassing.

Now if you were talking about ancient Mayan ruins, or an Old West ghost town then this would be more of a gray area, I believe, since those structures have been abandoned for 150+ years. The same goes for structures in National Parks, since a National Park is public land you could make a case that you thought you were allowed to go since you weren't specifically told you can't go (assuming you didn't cross a fence line/no trespassing sign). You should definitely contact a real lawyer though.


Now if you do enter then I think the probability that you will be caught and prosecuted would be fairly low. It is your decision if that risk is worth the reward of entering/exploring the structure.

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... not that you'd find ancient Mayan ruins in the US, but +1 deserved anyway. – Roflo Feb 4 at 19:45
3  
Where I live a person must be asked to leave, or be warned beforehand not to go onto the property(in the previous 2 years), before an act of Trespass occurs. However, entering a building without permission is Burglary. – mattnz Feb 4 at 20:21
2  
All buildings are owned by someone. – Mike Scott Feb 4 at 21:04
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@Cthulhu The buildings pictured in your question are recent enough to have a clear ownership chain to this day. Regardless, the person who owns the land generally owns the buildings on the land. Buildings created by ancient civs is generally on government land, and many ghost towns are as well. When this is true the rules for government land apply. When the land is owned by a private party then it is always trespass AFAIK. Also like Mike Scott mentioned, it is safe to assume that all buildings are owned by a private party or the government. – Erik Feb 4 at 21:47
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@mattnz: whereas where I live (law of England and Wales), burglary is specifically trespassing with intent to steal (or commit any of a list of other classes of crimes), or stealing (or any of the others) while trespassing. However, trespass on its own is not (normally) a criminal offence here. – Steve Jessop Feb 5 at 2:12

In the UK, trespass (except in places like nuclear plants and railway lines) is a civil offence not a criminal offence, and so you can only be sued for compensation for any costs the landowner incurred as a result of your trespass, and you can't get a criminal record.

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This is interesting. Can you explain a bit further? Does this mean that if I didn't break anything, I couldn't be sued? Also, can you also provide resources for your answer? – Cthulhu Feb 4 at 20:39
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Correct, if you don't cause any damage or disrupt any activity then there's nothing to sue you for. See the answer from nivag for a link to a useful resource. – Mike Scott Feb 4 at 21:02
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@Erik Actually, when you go hiking in the UK it's fairly common that the trail goes through private grazing land and there are stepladders or gates to help you cross the fences, so just walking over private land seems to be a common practice. But I'm pretty sure bringing your sheep or even letting your dog scare somebody else's sheep will be considered damaging their property. – Sumyrda Feb 4 at 22:21
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@Erik - not with impunity. The UK has "historic rights of way" which supersede land ownership (much to the chagrin of people like Madonna) - but you only have freedom to roam on designated open country, otherwise you're supposed to stick to the trail. Grazing your sheep on someone else's private land without permission is not allowed. – HorusKol Feb 4 at 23:35
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Oh, and if you're using a right of way for its proper purpose (which doesn't include grazing there), then indeed you are not trespassing. But you can't in general "wander through private land" with impunity, you can only "wander through established rights of way" with impunity. For example, there happens not to be a public footpath or other right of way in my back garden, and so if you go there without permission (or other legal justification) then you would be trespassing. Some back gardens (or, far more commonly, fields) do have rights of way in them and so you can go there. – Steve Jessop Feb 5 at 2:23

For the most part, if you don't do any damage to the property, or yourself, and don't get caught, then I don't think you've anything to worry about.

As others have mentioned, liability is a property owners primary concern when it comes to vacant, condemned, or abandoned properties. Even if they don't get sued, if someone breaks their neck parkouring on a roof that caves in, then it's a big time hassle just to fill out reports and do investigations, but if you do no harm, then no harm done.

When I was younger I explored numerous abandoned buildings, including one which was featured in the first Transformers movie (an old train station). I even got caught a couple times, but all that happened was we got kicked out and told not to come back because they didn't want us getting hurt. There were even a number of times when we'd run into other people exploring the same building as us.

One thing you do want to be cautious of though are vagrants, vagabonds, and mobs. When I was in Philly we were advised to stay out of abandoned buildings because it was not uncommon for gangs to conduct illegal operations in them. People have been shot for stumbling onto hidden drug ops, or knifed by some desperate homeless person for their pocket change. More than once I've ventured into dark rooms omitting suspicious odours, afraid I might find a rotting corpse. One time I did, but it was only a deer (at an old iron mine).

Pro tip: We discovered it was incredibly easy to get away with our escapades if we were dressed in costume. One of the times I got caught was in a skyscraper construction site, I was wearing full body woodland camo and a bandana, the security guard just gave me a puzzled look then directed me towards the gate in the 12ft perimeter fence where he let me out. One of my friends would always dress up as old school batman, cape and everything. The cops just laugh, and let you go, then they have a funny story to tell their pals. Also, if you get caught, just smile, cooperate and play dumb, "This place is so cool! Oh we aren't allowed in here? Okay, sorry, we'll just leave then."

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2  
:) you rarely have to worry if you don't get caught. – Erik Feb 4 at 21:50
    
Another way to go if you got the guts is to act like you belong there or were given the wrong location. Similar to in Ghostbusters when they act like ConEd workers inspecting the pipes when the cops roll by. Love the costume idea though +1. – fractalspawn Feb 4 at 22:59
    
@Erik - I can actually only remember getting caught the one time. There were others where I remember bolting before we got spotted, but I remember the one time very vividly, I had jumped down from the roof of what I discovered was the security trailer, the lights were out in it so I can only assume I woke the guy up. Anyways, I never saw him, only his light, I made a break for it but as I said in my answer-12ft perimeter fence-so there weren't many places for me to go. I tried double backing on him behind an ATCO trailer, and ended up hiding under it while the guy ran around looking for me. – ShemSeger Feb 5 at 1:51
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@Erik - It was after about 15 minutes of me laying there in the dirt under this trailer, waiting for this guy to give up and return to his trailer that I had a sudden epiphany: Real life, is not like video games; real guards, are smarter than AI. I felt a little foolish after that point, especially considering 15 minutes earlier I had convinced myself I'd found a pretty good hiding spot and he was eventually going to give up and 'reset'. In my defence, I hadn't lived away from home for very long when this happened... I learned how to adult shortly after that. – ShemSeger Feb 5 at 2:00
    
I've been places I shouldn't have been in my younger days too do to curiosity more than anything. While I was able to escape unscathed as well I agree that video games don't give guards enough credit. :) – Erik Feb 5 at 3:12

In general these buildings are owned by someone so entering without permission will fall under trespass or a similar offense, depending on your country. How this is dealt with will vary from country to country. In the UK provided you are not thought to be attempting burglary and cause no damage, it is a civil offense and you will probably just be made to leave.

A more in detailed description and advice for the law in the UK can be found here and I think it has pretty good advice regardless of your country (most of which you already seem to follow).

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Trespassing in Canada is one of the hardest laws to enforce.

It would be safe to assume that people entering such dwellings are guilty of this offence. Up here only the police, the land owner or a security guard under the employment of the land owner can arrest someone on a trespassing charge, and only after a second offence at the same place. Even then a conviction is not likely. We studied this very question in my security course some years back.

Nevertheless, do not be fooled, in other counties the laws can be very different, especially if the buildings are of an historical or military importance.

Trespassers beware!

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