Saturday, November 16, 2013

Adverse Posession

Squatters are in the news again.

For those of you who may not know what a squatter is, it's a person or persons who move into a building with no legal ownership or permission from the owner, and act as though the property was their own, openly and notoriously.

The term we use in the business is "adverse possession", meaning taking possession of a property without the right to do so. But with adverse possession comes a specific set of rules which says that if a "squatter" lives in the property, openly and notoriously, and pays the taxes, after seven years he can apply to the town to deed it to him--in theory because the owner has abandoned the property.

Today towns will sell a property for back taxes--unless the taxes are current. I'm not a lawyer, but I can tell you that squatters pop up here and there year after year. We would occasionally see them in the states where owners would be absent for months or sometime years at a time. So Florida is a good fertile area for squatters, and so is northern New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont where little cabins and cottages were often vacant for years, and sometimes the owners no longer ever used these cabins and squatters moved in.

My grandfather had a cabin in Charlestown, New Hampshire, almost on the Vermont border. It was nothing special, two stories and about 5 or 6 acres of stoney fields. As kids my mother and uncle used to go there with their family. Later they would take their friends up for long weekends. My grandfather lived in New Jersey and during his lifetime the family used the "farm" for winter vacations, ski vacations and occasional summer outings, but as the family grew up (and got older) Cape Cod was more to their liking--still he kept the "farm".

In the last years of his life he would occasionally talk about the "farm" and how he'd like to go back and see it again, but that wasn't to be--when he died it had probably been 10 or 15 years since he had been there. Following the death of my grandmother about 15 years after my grandfather's death, my uncle--who had inherited the "farm"--went up to Charlestown to see what condition it was in.

And lo and behold, he had squatters. These were not the Florida variety of squatters who move into a home as a place to stay, with little hope of future ownership. These folks were well on their way to ownership of grandfather's farm, having lived there for years.

At the end of grandmother's life she wasn't on top of the tax bills--and really didn't notice that the taxes were being paid by others. In his situation, if no bill came in the mail, no money was due, and so this clue slipped through the cracks. So then my uncle had to figure what to do with these people. Of course the sheriff was willing to evict them, but lawyers were needed to deal with them, since they were--at least to all outward observers--good citizens. Employed at the Charlestown Lock Co. making door locks and the like, they were liked by the neighbors and known around town. Still they didn't want to rent the place, which might have been the best solution, and so they were evicted and had to make up a story about why they had to move.

And so armed with this history, I was surprised when we had squatters move into our neighborhood just this past season here in Englewood. The Florida squatters are not hoping to acquire the title by adverse possession, they were just looking for a free dwelling, and maybe one that they could live in for a month or two.

They picked a nice house, albeit one with tallish grass and dark windows. Somehow they found a way to get in, and soon enough they had the electricity turned on. The didn't bother having the water turned on, they connected a hose from the sprinkler pump to an outside faucet, which charged the water pipes in the home--so the toilets would flush. Even though this isn't drinking water, they still were able to make use of it.

That house was in the hands of a bank. The owner had been evicted, but the ownership was still in limbo, the bank holding off on taking on the ownership and thereby having to pay the back taxes even without a potential buyer. And because of the cloudy ownership, there were no "owners" who the sheriff could call. And to make matters worse, the squatters had a (forged) lease from someone which gave them the right to be there.

So when the president of our association was made aware of the situation by neighbors who noticed there were lights on in the house and a car there at night--and who also noted that the sprinkler well was pumping water into the house--he went right over with the sheriff.

The people were surprised to be visited at about 7 PM by this little band of upset neighbors with the sheriff in tow. But they produced the lease they said they had received by mail from the owner who advertised his place for rent on Craig's List. The sheriff said he couldn't do anything until the owner was contacted, and that couldn't be in the evening, but they would be able to call the name on the lease--and also the name on the property deed in the morning.

And you know what? In the morning the squatters were gone. Maybe they just moved on, I noted this week that the Charlotte County sheriff's office has rounded up 4 squatters--fewer than they thought they would catch--but proof that there are still squatters in all the nicest neighborhoods.

Dane Hahn is a real estate professional serving Sarasota and Charlotte Counties. He can be reached at or by phone at 941-681-0312. See him on the web at          

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