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Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Can Squatters Move In and Move You Out?

 By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy Pxhere

A couple months ago I wrote a blog that showed how phroggers can secretly take residence in the home in which you currently reside  To kick off the new year, I'll show you how squatters can move into your home and move you out.  That's right, the way the laws are in many states, including Florida, strangers can wait until you're away from home to commandeer it right out from under you.  And there's little you can do about it since the law is on the squatters side.  If this sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone, just be grateful you aren't this week's costar.  Below I'll detail several owner ordeals that cost a lot of time and money to rectify.

Patti Peoples owns a rental property in Jacksonville, Florida.  Or at least she thought she did until she sent a handyman to make repairs prior to moving a new renter into the home.  The handyman quickly reported that the house was no longer vacant.  It had been occupied by a pair of women who had changed the locks and moved in rent-free.  When Patti went over to confront the squatters, she was told in no uncertain terms to get lost.  When she went to the police to report the break-in and takeover of her property, she was told that she needed to file an eviction notice with the courts if she wanted the squatters removed.  She was also informed that until the courts gave her legal right to repossess her home, she wouldn't be permitted to turn off the electricity or water and that she'd be prosecuted if she continued to harass the illegal tenants.

In the meantime, not only were the squatters allowed to stay in her home without paying a dime, they were free to do as they pleased to the property.  This included breaking windows, knocking holes in the walls, spreading feces on the carpets, and stealing the washer/dryer.  Inevitably the squatters did more than $38,000 in damage. When Patti drove by the property one night to see if the squatters were still in residence, one of the women threw a brick at her car, which damaged it.  Still, the police did nothing until a court ruling was issued a month later mandating eviction.  While this travesty of justice is hard to believe, it's nothing unusual.  In fact, it could have been worse.  In some jurisdictions it has taken as long as a year and a half to legally evict squatters.  In other cases, judges have sided with the squatters.  

In 2021, Burton Banks tried to sell a property his father had left him after he passed away.  Unfortunately, there was a problem. It seems that next door neighbor Melissa Schrock had erected a goat pen on Burton's property decades ago that took up 2/3 of an acre of his father's land.  When Burton tried to reclaim the property so he could sell it, he was forced to take the matter to court.  The judge ruled in Schrock's favor since Burton hadn't been the primary resident of the property and Delaware law ceded possession of the land to Schrock after 20 years of occupancy.

Image courtesy Pxhere

Hell no, they won't go! In Washington State, a woman required the assistance of the local SWAT team to remove squatters after successfully filing an eviction notice, only to have them move right back in as soon as the cops were gone.  According to a February 18, 2023 report by Fox News, "Roughly 30 officers took part in the Wednesday raid of a Lynnwood, Washington property that had been taken over by squatters as part of a stolen vehicle trafficking investigation. Police say 52 cars, some of them stolen, along with drugs and firearms were found on the property."  The problem with the rental property began during the coronavirus pandemic when laws prohibited owners from evicting those who could not afford to pay rent.  Even though the law eventually sided with the owner, that didn't stop the squatters from moving back in after she had the locks changed.  Fox News Digital spoke to Lieutenant Hayes who said that ensuring the squatters don’t return is "largely on the property owner."

Can squatting be a cottage industry?  It was in at least one situation when Tyrone Jones was arrested and accused of serial squatting.  Jones had created a fake persona which he then used to become executor of a $1 million property in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  In October, the Broward County Sheriff's Office evicted ten squatters who had illegally taken possession of the home.  It was later learned that Jones had used this same tactic no fewer than 14 times with other properties in the area, which he then rented to other people for profit.

How can you prevent squatters from targeting your home? Other than hiring a house sitter to make sure any vacant property you own never is uninhabited, there are a few things you can do to make it harder for squatters to set up housekeeping:

  1. Regularly check on any vacant property you own, or hire a property management company to do so.
  2. Install a security system and add web-enabled cameras on the front and back door, as well as inside the home to alert you of intruders.
  3. Beef up locks on windows and doors to make gaining entry more difficult.
  4. Add exterior security lights that are motion-activated.
  5. Install lights with timers that go on and off inside to make it appear the property is occupied.
  6. Make sure you keep the lawn mowed and the mail picked up so nobody realizes the place is vacant.
  7. Ask the neighbors to alert you to any suspicious activity.
  8. Encourage the neighbors to park on the driveway.
  9. Shut off the water if the house is going to be vacant for an extended period of time.

What are the do's and don'ts of evicting squatters? Squatter's rights are such that you need to make sure you abide by the letter of the law if you don't want your actions to come to haunt you later when you later seek the court's assistance to evict the freeloaders.  Below are things you must avoid doing no matter how aggravated the situation becomes:

  1. Avoid threatening or intimidating squatters no matter how badly you want them gone.  Do so and you could wind up being arrested or sued.
  2. Do not remove the squatter's furniture or belongings illegally.  Most jurisdictions require a landlord to post a written notice before removing a squatters property before or after an eviction notice has been filed in court.
  3. Never cut off the utilities after a squatter has taken up residence.  This action is frowned on by the court.  However, that doesn't mean you can't have the utilities turned off while property is vacant.
How can you legally encourage squatters to move out of your property? While you aren't legally allowed to insist that a squatter vacates your residence, that doesn't mean you can't wheel and deal with them.  Several tactics that have been known to work include:
  • Cash for keys.  Nobody says you can't offer squatters a cash incentive to move out.
  • Apply public pressure. Inform the neighbors about the squatters.  If they get incensed about having potentially dangerous freeloaders living nearby, they may pressure the squatters to move along without further legal hassles.
  • Talk to the clergy. Just because you can't talk the squatters into moving out, that doesn't mean nobody else can.  Some squatters attend church.  A visit from a pastor or priest could be just what they need to see the error of their ways.  
Whatever it takes to get squatters to move out is worth a shot as long as the tactics you use are legal.  The longer squatters stay in your property, the harder it will be to get them out.  The clock is ticking and the laws aren't always on the side of the owners.  Don't let squatters move in and move you out.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more ways to save on flood insurance, check out her website at http://aplusallfloridainsuranceinc.com/

2 comments:

  1. This is a really scary thought. If Squatters can Move In and take your property and the law can do much about it without you going through all kinds of red take! Yikes!

    ReplyDelete

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