Although some squatters move into vacant homes to live rent free, others do so to take advantage of adverse possession laws. The squatter movement has grown, not just in the U.S. but significantly in Europe as a means of social change. Activists advocate squatting as a response to Europe’s high unemployment, austerity, decreased public housing and declining living standards. Currently touted as “alternative housing,” squatting in the U.S. increased during the time when foreclosures and vacant homes skyrocketed after the financial crisis.
A recent story, about squatters taking over the Florida home of an active duty soldier who is stationed in Hawaii, highlights a recent trend. According to Florida’s WFLA Channel 8, the home owner claimed people broke into his home and changed the locks; however, the squatters who moved into the soldier’s home claimed to have a verbal agreement with the home’s caretaker to live in the home while making repairs. When the Afghanistan veteran planned to moved back to Florida, he was caught off guard when he was told removing the squatter was a civil matter and had to go through the eviction process to rid the home of the invaders. As the story gained national attention, veteran groups hired an attorney to begin eviction. However, it appears that the combined pressure has facilitated the squatters’ departure; but not without making a statement of their own by leaving the home in disarray and their dogs to roam freely.
Two local cases of squatting were reported last year, where defendants claimed “sovereign rights.” A vacant, bank owned Waldorf home was reported to be occupied by seven individuals who claimed to have the right to occupy the home because they are “sovereign citizens.”
A March 18, 2013 Washington Post article (‘Moorish American national’ charged with trying to take mansion) highlighted the other case, where an individual also claiming sovereign rights moved into a vacant $6 million Bethesda home listed for sale. The squatter allegedly attempted to change the tax records to indicate he was the owner by appearing at the Montgomery County court house and presenting “historical” documents and maps. But the county clerk turned him away saying that a “proper deed” was needed for such a change. The squatter reportedly went as far as emailing the listing agent cryptically claiming ownership. According to news reports, the squatters in both local cases were charged by police.
The Bethesda case emphasizes that bank owned foreclosures are not the only homes occupied by squatters, vacant homes listed for sale are also targets. Nationwide reports about squatters in upper bracket luxury homes increased last year, as well as the attention to “squatter’s rights” and adverse possession laws.
Last July, Sheree R. Curry of AOL Real Estate (Squatters Beware: States Are Revising Adverse Possession Laws) highlighted the case of a squatter who moved into a Boca Raton, FL mansion listed for sale. The squatter was eventually “locked out” of the home, but the events moved the community in an effort to change Florida’s Adverse Possession laws. And although adverse possession laws vary throughout the country, Curry reported that some states are revising these laws to protect home owners. New York and Washington had already changed adverse possession laws when Florida changed theirs to prohibit “acquiring title to real property by possession”; which went effect July 1, 2013.
Dan Krell is a realtor with Gerlach Real Estate, Inc. in Chevy Chase, Md. You can access more information at www.DanKrell.com.