Finders keepers, losers weepers: That may as well be the name of a Florida law on "adverse possession" that says anyone can move into an abandoned Florida home without the owner's permission and eventually obtain the title. That is, provided seven years has passed since the squatters barged their way in, and that they paid the property taxes each year.
When Tampa Bay area homeowner Danuta Brown (pictured above) discovered in December that people she didn't know were living in her four-bedroom, three-bath investment property she wanted to sell in Dover, Fla., she launched a legal battle that ended in a judgment in her favor this month when the occupant, a 41-year-old mother, failed to appear at the court hearing on time.
Brown is one of the lucky ones, as only months had passed, not years. Florida's law may only give original title holders seven years to assert their rights, but in Arizona two years of uninterrupted possession is sufficient for squatters to claim real estate by adverse possession. In New Hampshire it is 20 years. Although other circumstances vary per state, to see where your state falls in the mix, check out this page at Lawchek
With nearly 20 percent of Florida's homes sitting vacant, according to Census Bureau data released this month
, that rise of more than 63 percent in the past 10 years is the highest in the nation, WalletPop reported
Although the figure also accounts for snowbirds
who only make their residence in Florida during the winter, the staggering numbers still can put second-home owners
at risk for this legalized
possession takeover, right alongside those who abandoned a home due to foreclosure or being severely underwater.
One man, Chris McDonald, is making it his business to place people in the abandoned homes without the owner's permission. Through his property management company, Chateau Lan, he says he has placed about 20 people in homes in exchange for a monthly "occupancy fee," which, in part, covers the property taxes.
By taking possession of vacant, abandoned properties, McDonald says he is doing property owners, neighbors and people looking for affordable housing a favor.
"The property has to look abandoned as well, grass grown up, lights and water off, things of that nature," he told Tampa Bay Online
. "I have to do a lot of research to identify properties or qualify properties."
He also says he vets the potential occupants. "We do a limited background check; we don't want child molesters," he said. "The main requirement is that they have some sort of stable employment and good records as well."
McDonald, who on his LinkedIn page
claims he also runs a mortgage financing company and works as a real estate mitigation consultant and liquid vitamin salesman, doesn't reveal something important. How does he initially gain access to a home before he changes the locks and adds a property to his list? It's not as if someone often just leaves a patio door unlocked, or a key under a mat.
Many of these homes are being taken over after someone likely participated in breaking and entering, but if whomever is not caught in the middle of said illegal activity, they can't be charged with a crime. So instead of it becoming a criminal matter, it is classified as a civil matter until sheriffs can find something to charge the person with.
Real estate lawyer Mark Aubin, who represented Brown at court, says since the homeowner doesn't have a lease agreement with the squatter, the owner can't come in and just evict the occupant.
A WFLA-TV news "On Your Side" investigation
discovered three companies, including McDonald's, filing documents with the property appraiser's office to take possession of numerous houses throughout Hillsborough County. At least in that regard they are trying to follow the law.
"It's gotten to be dozens of these homes around the county," said Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner, who added that adverse possession claims are now a "hot item."
The other companies are Homes for Americans LLC, run by Joel McNair of Sarasota, 60, and Brevkam Ventures LLC, run by George Williams, 41, of Valrico, according to news reports.
Last Tuesday investigators put out an arrest warrant for Williams, who they allege is running an elaborate scheme to defraud by collecting money to move people into empty properties with out the owners' consent, TBO reported
. By that same night, he turned himself in, reported the Brandon News & Tribune
The other two, McDonald and McNair, however, have not been charged with anything in relation to the adverse possessions, but McDonald is being investigated, according to news reports.
It seems that the sheriff's office is finally coming up with its own loop hole that says this scheme doesn't qualify under the adverse possession law when certain processes aren't followed.
Williams (pictured left), who is being held on $105,000 bail, is charged with five counts of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, four counts of grand theft of $100,000 or more, two counts of second-degree grand theft, organized fraud for less than $20,000, organized fraud over $50,000 and a failure to pay child support ($1,000 of which has since been paid), according to the sheriff's report
obtained by this AOL Real Estate contributor
"This ought to send a clear message that we're not going to tolerate the adverse possession," sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said. "So any individuals besides George Williams or any of the others that are attempting to pull these types of schemes, they will be brought to justice, they will be arrested.''
As for Danuta Brown, she gasped, "Oh my god," as seen in this Tampa Bay Online video
, after entering her home six days after the judgment that immediately ordered out the squatter, who claimed she too was a victim as she thought she had a legitimate occupancy contract. Left in the home after the hasty scramble to pack up and get out, were garbage in bags and on the floors, cluttered bathrooms; a messy kitchen; and stained carpet throughout the house.
"I had to spend money for court," Brown told the reporter
, and "I have to spend money to clean up this garbage.'' Brown and her husband, Marciej Piotrowski, had purchased the home as new construction in 2006 for $289,100.
See more photos of the interior of this home after the occupant vacated the premises.
Photos of Victim of Real Estate Hijacking
Sheree R. Curry, who has owned three homes but never and investment property, is a three-time award-winning journalist who has covered real estate for six years. During her 20-year career, her articles have appeared regularly in the
Wall Street Journal,
TV Week, and Fortune. She's been writing for AOL Real Estate since 2009 from a Minneapolis-area rental. She seeks a book publisher -- or at least a lender who'll give a reasonable mortgage rate to a self-employed
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