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Adverse Possesion – Urban Homesteading Or Trespassing?

House Where Nobody Lives

House Where Nobody Lives by erix!, on Flickr

One of the things that has really impacted a lot of neighborhoods, including mine, is the presence of empty houses. They sit there with their dying lawns and curtain-less windows, looking like empty tooth sockets in the daily life of the street. The cause is well known, the housing market collapse and then the economic implosion of the Great Recession left many people with houses that were worth more than they owed or without the jobs and income to keep up with mortgages they used to be able to afford.

Sometimes there a new family moves in and things start to look up. The question is are they moving in legally or are they trespassing? Actually there is a middle ground called “Adverse Possession” and it is starting to happen more and more.

The TBO.com (Tampa Bay Online) has a good article about this practice in Florida. First a little legal history; adverse possession is when someone openly moves into an empty parcel of land or a building, like an empty house, and files and intent with the county to live there. This is really old school law which was intended for empty farm lands and homestead, but some form of it is on the books in every state. Usually you have to build a “notorious” fence and pay the property taxes on the property but after seven year the deed becomes yours.

Now what is going on in Florida, at least in this article, is a little different. Several different companies have been filing adverse possession documents with the county and then leasing the properties to new tenants. When the property owner shows up, they are stunned to find that the folks living there have a lease and everything. The counties have no requirements for notifying the owners, since the legal assumption is that the property is basically abandoned.

It is probably illegal to do what these companies are doing. The law seems to be clear that you personally have to occupy the property, not just claim it then rent it to someone else. But an individual probably has a much better chance of making this stick than someone using it for business purposes, but since it has not gone to court yet we just don’t know.

I love this idea, as it looks like it really puts the screws the banks that are repossessing homes. They take them over and then, depending on how bad the housing market is, they sit empty for months and months. I was unable to get any of my lawyer friends to get back to me by the time this posted but it seem to me there are a couple of big problems for the banks. It varies from state to state, but it seems that if the owner comes back and wants to take up residency before the 7 years are up, the adverse possessor is out of luck.

They don’t have the full claim to the property and a valid claim would have to be honored. Again it is all about occupancy. But banks, even though they are “people” under the color of the law can’t occupy a home. They own the property, and they can rent it but if it is unoccupied it seems to me that it would be open for the adverse possession.

It would probably come down to the specifics of the law in each state. If there is an exemption for property inside a city that is probably enough to make this common trespass and not a neat way for people to find a place to live, while sticking it to the banks. However these laws are pretty old, they have probably not been updated in a very long time so the chances are that in some states there is not that kind of exemption, if any.

Lest anyone think that this is all cool take think about this story from the TBO article:

Neither did Downey Connolly until neighbors called in December informing him there were several cars outside the Valrico house inherited by his 3 ½-year-old daughter as part of her mother’s estate.
“I called the sheriff and went over and come to find out some people had rented the house from Chateau Lan,” Connolly said.
Connolly arrived at the house without any papers. He said the deputy told him the occupant produced a lease.
“He said you have no paperwork and they have paperwork,” Connolly recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, give me a few minutes,’ and he said, ‘I don’t have time to wait.”’
Nearly two months later, there are still strangers in his daughter’s house.

That house is the legacy for a little kid. It was not empty because the banks had foreclosed but because as a three year old she can’t live their herself, but it is now being occupied by people not paying her any rent.

Florida is a pretty wild and wooly place and so seeing this kind of thing is Tampa is likely an indicator of what is to come. As I said above every state has some from of this law and every state has a many, and in many cases a growing number, of vacant houses. If the laws on adverse possession are amenable there may be a growing number of people claiming houses, and being able to do it under the full cover of the law.

Just a word to the wise if you are now thinking about doing this. Research what the law really is. Research the house you think you want to move into. And be prepared to be booted out, because while this is old law the new conditions that will have to be tested in court before we really know the end result. I would not really advise trying, but that is up to you. Just make sure you’re ready to move if the law goes against you!

The floor is yours.

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Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for Govtrak.org

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