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Exploring abandoned places can be fun for a number of reasons. I personally get a rush when discovering a new location for the first time, or finally getting into a high risk place that is off-limits.
But there are times where I want to just photograph in peace without having to worry about the police or property owners giving me grief. Believe it or not, you can get into a lot of places legally with permission if you know how. Here’s how to get permission to go into abandoned buildings.
In short, the best way to get permission to go into abandoned buildings is to reach out to the owner first. Don’t say you’re an explorer, but say you’re a photographer or historian. You’ll also want to have some photos, articles or business cards with you to prove you’re legitimately there for the reason you gave.
Beg For Forgiveness, Or As For Permission?
So why even go to the trouble to get permission in the first place? I do agree it takes some of the excitement out of it, but it certainly has its benefits. If you’re into photography you’ll appreciate the openness and freedom to shoot exteriors without fear of getting caught. Sometimes fear of getting spotted can spoil some great shots, and having permission changes that.
You’ll also have the chance to speak to the owner and learn a bit about the property. A lot of times abandoned places have weird stories or interesting history. Having photos and the story make the trip twice as good in my eyes.
Lastly, sometimes it’s just your only option.
Some places are sealed up so tight, there’s just no chance of you getting in without using force (And you don’t really want to do that anyway). If it’s your last option just ask the owner. You literally don’t have anything to lose.
Worst case they say no and you come back later. Although it is definitely an awkward conversation if they catch you trespassing after telling you to stay out…
Finding Out Why Its Abandoned
Before reaching out, understand why the property is vacant.
If a building was the scene of a tragic accident, it would be insensitive to call up one of the victims family members asking to take photos. On the flip side, if a location is off limits due to it being environmentally or historically protected you now have a possible way in.
Often times with the right social engineering and copywriting, you can convince someone to let you on the premises to take photos. Getting permission to access protected lands is a process in and of itself, but it can be done.
I’ll be covering this more in depth with hopefully a successful trip to show how this exactly can be done. There is a lot of red tape and paperwork that goes into this, but I definitely plan on covering this later.
If the property is deemed a hazard due to chemical spills or structural failure and is owned by the city, chances are they won’t let you in. I guess it never hurts to ask, but with superfund sites or places that are literally caving in on themselves your chances are low. Private owners you have a slightly higher chance however I would say it is still low.
Sometimes homes are foreclosed, and while abandoned homes can be cool to explore, remember that each abandoned home or business you explore is someone else’s hardship. Losing a home can be tough, think twice before reaching out to someone who’s home was abandoned, or at least choose your words carefully.
Finding The Owner
Sometimes it’s as easy as knocking on a door, other times it’s a bit more involved..
Depending on the consequences of getting caught, and how far you have to travel you might want to contact the owner before getting to the location.
This is probably best if you’re trying to mitigate all risk of getting a trespassing charge, or having to travel hours back home after being told no.
The first step is to find out who owns the property. This actually easier than you might think.
In the United States, you can lookup who owns any property by using a Geographic Information System, or GIS. Every county has one, so in Google type “GIS nameofyourcounty” You should find a site owned by your county that has a map of all of the properties.
Find the property, and you’ll find who owns it.
If the building is commercial and was owned by a business research the business online. Check the Better Business Bureau for names and phone numbers. If the property has a website, go through the website and look for a contact page. You can also use a free tool called Hunter.io.
This tool scans webpages as you browse them and looks for hidden email addresses of potential people you can contact. If the property if up for sale, chances are there is a realtor you can call.
I wouldn’t recommend contacting the realtor first, as they will be pretty annoyed at you for wasting their time if you come see the property only to take pictures, but that’s up to you.
Keep in mind that if the property is owned by a city or government, your chances are very slim of ever getting permission to enter the property. You have to understand that in most people’s eyes, having a stranger march around their hazardous property is a massive liability, and quite honestly strange to most people.
Get Permission From The Owner
Now that you know why the places are off-limits, and who the owner is, it’s now time to reach out to them.
You want to do two things when reaching out to the owner.
Limit the risk to them, and establish credibility or authority.
Now don’t lie!
I’m not recommending that you put on a yellow vest and a hard hat and tell them you work for the city, (that’s a whole different article) but come to them with a clear purpose.
Here’s an example of what a BAD email to a property owner would be.
“I saw you owned Diarrhea House and I wanted to see if I could take pictures of the house? I am an Urban Explorer who has been in a lot of abandoned buildings so you don’t have to worry about me getting hurt. I just want to take some photos cause it looks really cool. I won’t break anything or move anything. Please let me know!”
That was terrible for a lot of different reasons. Let’s go over them briefly.
First off, the email didn’t address a specific person. You really want to use their name to get their attention. The more personal something is, the higher the chance you’ll receive a response.
Right away the email flat out asked to take pictures, no credibility was established, and there is literally no upside for the property owner at any point in this email.
The email also uses ‘Urban Explorer which you should never do in my opinion. Not everyone knows what that is, and if they go to look it up they might not like what they see.
Always try to refer to yourself as a photographer, freelance journalist, historian, or hell even an archaeologist. Just don’t say you’re an ‘urbexer’ *cringes*
The email also brings attention to all the negative things that could happen. Even though the email tries to dismiss them and reassure the owner that it’s ok, you still don’t want to draw attention to the negative aspects of exploring the property.
Lastly, the entire email’s tonality lacks authority and professionalism.
How you approach someone and the words you use go further than you think. Be formal, but friendly.
Now here’s an example of what a GOOD email would look like.
“I’m a historical photographer and author in the Tittlewink area and I saw that you were the owner of Diarrhea House so I decided I’d reach out.
I travel across the country documenting historic homes just like yours, and I was wondering If I could take some photos of your property?
I’d love to photograph the home and even send you some photos for yourself if you’d like.
You can view my book, as well as some past work at the link below.
Thanks in advance!”
I’m not saying that was perfect, but it was a hell of a lot better than the first.
Basically, be a Jim, never a Jimmy.
The good email addressed the owner by name, established intent and credibility in the first sentence, and didn’t bring up any of the possible dangers that could take place on his property.
Now if you don’t have a book or proper website, it’s ok. Link to your blog, Facebook page, or photo album to show that this is something you actually do and are knowledgeable about.
There’s a good chance that they will get back to you and say yes. They may even be flattered and volunteer a bunch more information, you’d really be surprised what you can get with just asking.
Ask Thy Neighbor For Permission
This is one that has worked more often than not for me, even though it makes me uncomfortable. If you can’t find the owner, just knock on the neighbors door.
Just recently we saw a really beautiful late 1800s style townhome that was clearly abandoned, but under some type of repair. The driveway was unobscured and their road was a two-lane highway with nowhere to park.
We saw some kids playing in the next yard over and decided to stop by and introduce ourselves, and I’m glad we did.
Turns out the neighbor was good friends with the property owner and she was very interested in what we were doing, although for some reason she thought we were ghost hunters too..
Either way, we ended up getting permission just by being friendly, honest, and sharing our work with the next-door neighbor. This gave us the opportunity to not only explore the grounds freely, but also learn a bit of the history of the house, which is an added bonus for those of us who enjoy writing as well as taking photos.
What If They Didn’t Give Permission
So you didn’t get permission to into the abandoned building. Well it’s not the end of the world. You can always try again in a few months, or reach out to someone else if there are multiple owners.
You can also check out our ultimate guide to finding new abandoned places.
Urban Exploration is all about exploring anyway, not getting a guided handheld tour. Plan your entry in more detail, or move on to something else.