SQUATTERS – IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU TOO!
I have read about people moving into empty homes and living there for months or longer until discovered – but I came upon it first-hand this past month. I was accompanying a real estate broker (I have a financial interest in this brokerage) for a view of a new listing the broker received. The home had been in foreclosure for quite a while and a foreclosure judgment was already entered, but with a sale date 5 months out. Since this was a property with 30 stables and horse corrals and such, as well as a nice house all on 5 acres just outside Wellington Florida, we figured it was going to be tall grass and snakes – so I wore my cowboy boots and jeans and loaded up on OFF!.
Finding the House:
We went up and down the street to find this house with 3 years of neglect. It was nowhere to be found. After some more examination I discovered a well kept (under the circumstances) property and upon ringing the doorbell, 3 pitbulls rushed to the window by the front door.
No one answered. A walk around the reasonably well kept property showed the electricity was on and air conditioning was running.
Confirming with the divorced owners that neither of them had rented the home out to anyone, we called the Sheriff to come out to investigate upon our staking out the house until some cars were in the driveway. No one answered the door and the Sheriff investigation of the license tags on the vehicles showed the owners to have long arrest records for drug related crimes and burgulary. Wonderful.
Through the criminal records reports we were able to find a telephone number for one of the parties. Upon calling and leaving a message (not as the attorney but as the Realtor), the broker received a return call. The caller admitted to living there under a lease arranged through an advertisement on Craig’s List. Unfortunately the “tenant” who said he paid first last and security of $5,700 couldn’t find the telephone number of the real estate agent he said gave him the keys.
Now to the legal side:
Since the occupant was claiming to be a valid tenant, we had to file a lawsuit for unlawful detainer, essentially also known as unlawful entry. This is a somewhat unique remedy under the law and it deals with when a person is occupying property but not under any right given by the owner. This is sort of like a trespass. There are two types of unlawful detainer, one being “with force” and one being “without force”. Under the legal procedures for unlawful detainer, the Plaintiff can elect to proceed using “Summary Procedure”, which cuts the normal time for answers and discovery from a month and perhaps longer, to having a trial within usually 14 days. As it turned out, we we got to court on this matter in 14 days from filing the complaint.
After service of the lawsuit, the “tenant” answered in what obviously was a well prepared (with lawyer assistance) pleading. The pleading explained that the tenant was showed the property by Mark (full name not included to protect real people) and there was a written lease with the owner, and Mark gave him the keys. The answer did not attach the written lease, and the answer said that the rent was $1,900 monthly but specifically did not say that the rent was ever paid, nor to whom.
The answer to the complaint did say who the real estate agent was and the name of the real estate firm.
The World is Small
I did a search of the real estate agent with the Florida Department of Professional Regulation and discovered only one with that name. Some Internet searches later I had his home phone and work phone, and after his wife called me back, I had his cell phone.
A search of the real estate firm was a bit more difficult since the name was a fictitious name that had expired on the state fictitious name list. But more digging and I discovered who operated the company. A call to the number and amazingly one of my clients answered! Small world isn’t it!
My client had no idea who the real estate agent was, nor who this “tenant” was and never dealt with the subject property. The real estate agent also confirmed that he never heard of the “tenant” nor the property nor my owner clients, and he did not even use his license but was working at a well-known not for profit organization as its executive director.
I obtained from the real estate agent and from the real estate broker affidavits that the allegations about them in the complaint were fabrications and filed them with the court.
The Court Hearing
So we went to court and the squatter showed up – toting along 5 children from 5 to 10 years of age. The squatter says he is single and he is 31. I doubt they were really his, but it made for good effect.
Against my initial intuition that we should just get this over with the judge, we went with the mandatory mediator for a pre-trial meeting. The mediator after reading the pleadings and asking some questions of each of us basically told the squatter that he should be prepared to move out in 5 days or his possessions will be put on the street by the Sheriff.
The squatter said that he paid the rent and had a written lease, he also admitted he did not bring the lease and did not bring any proof that he had paid the rent each month – or at all. Although based on his history I did not believe him, the story he gave is one that has proven itself to be true. In fact the mediatior told him that although he has no rights relative to my owner client, he could sue the person he paid the rent to and that person could also be criminally prosecuted.
The squatter then basically folded and said he would get out but needed 3 weeks to do so.
After a pow wow with my client we decided that since he had been maintaining and even improving (he had to install a water pump for the well, pump for the pool, and fix an a/c compressor) the house and 5 acres for several months, that he could have a full 8 days additional to remove himself and his belongings. He also stipulated that we could have access to the house this Sunday at a specific time to take interior pictures. He agreed, we signed a stipulation and presented it to the judge, who gladly accepted it and signed off, presenting me with my judgment, which included court costs and my ability to have the Writ of Possession issued by the Clerk of Court, on the condition that it not be exercised until that last day. We told he could take the pumps with him.
With the Final Judgment and Writ of Possession in hand, it was time to post the property on MLS with the exterior pictures we already have and add the interior pictures that we will take tomorrow. I hope the Broker gets a buyer before the grass gets too high! If you need a nice two story pool home and 30stall barn (you can see them in the picture off to the left) with 5 paddocks and lighted horse training rink and a great tiki bar with all the accoutrements just outside Wellington, feel free to contact me and I will refer you to the Broker.
Copyright 2013 by Richard P. Zaretsky, Esq.
Be sure to contact your own attorney for your state laws, and always consult your own attorney on any legal decision you need to make. This article is for information purposes and is not specific advice to any one reader. Richard Zaretsky, Esq., RICHARD P. ZARETSKY P.A. ATTORNEYS AT LAW, 1655 PALM BEACH LAKES BLVD, SUITE 900, WEST PALM BEACH, FLORIDA 33401, PHONE 561 689 6660 RPZ99@Florida-Counsel.com – FLORIDA BAR BOARD CERTIFIED IN REAL ESTATE LAW – We assist Brokers and Sellers with Short Sales and Modifications and Consult with Brokers and Sellers Nationwide! Shortsales@Florida-Counsel.com New Website www.Florida-Counsel.com