LEGAL Squatters in $8,000,000 Mansion: Don’t Let Your House be Next!
It’s not uncommon for potential Florida investment properties to have tenants. What happens less frequently, but in growing numbers, are possible investment properties housing illegal tenants, or squatters.
Perhaps, you saw a recent viral video regarding a man “legally squatting” in an $8 million bank-owned Boca Raton waterfront mansion. He had posted a notice on the front of the house stating he was a “living beneficiary to the Divine Estate being superior of commerce and usury.”
In fact, this situation happened a decade ago, not the other day, and the squatter — along with eight other illegal inhabitants — is long gone. The video may have gone viral because it strikes a chord with those concerned about Florida’s increasing affordability issue, as home prices in many parts of the state have increased rapidly.
Most squatters aren’t holed up in luxury homes in exclusive neighborhoods. That’s the kind of story that understandably goes viral. However, squatting is not uncommon in vacant rental properties. While trespassing and squatting are similar, they are not synonymous. Both parties know they are not supposed to be on that property. The squatter goes beyond the trespasser. Not only do they move into the building, possibly along with their family, but they may try to put the utilities in their name or perform other acts reserved for the legal owner or tenant. They usually tell friends and acquaintances that they are the legal owner or tenants of the property.
In Florida, squatters do have certain rights. If they manage to have continuous possession of the property for at least seven years and are the only occupants of the property, they might gain title to the property under the state’s statute of adverse possession. These are not the only criteria, but if there are long-term squatters on your property or a parcel you are eying for investment, here’s what to do to deal with the problem.
While unlawful detainer lawsuits are used when someone is squatting on a property, they are more commonly used to eject friends or former romantic partners who refuse to leave a premises.
Adverse Possession in Florida
Seven years of continuous possession is the major but not the only factor regarding adverse possession in Florida. The possession of the property must be open and not conducted in secret. The squatter must treat the property as if it were their own. If they pay the taxes on the property for seven years, file a land tax return with the county property appraiser, cultivate the property or protect it via the use of an enclosure, and maintain the property and land, they might qualify for adverse possession. Basically, the squatter must move into a neglected property and improve it over those seven years. Most squatters are not going to meet these criteria.
Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit
To get rid of a squatter on your property, you must file an unlawful detainer lawsuit in the county court of the county in which the property is located. In such a lawsuit, the property owner is the plaintiff. Attach proof of ownership of the dwelling to the complaint, such as a deed or lease, with an explanation of how you acquired the property. Show that there is no rental agreement, whether written or verbal, between the squatter and you.
You must establish a chain of title to prove your rightful possession. In short, you must prove that your right to the property is superior to that of the defendant, the squatter.
The county sheriff or a certified process server must serve the summons and complaint to the defendant. The good news is that the defendant has just five days to respond to the complaint. While unlawful detainer lawsuits are used when someone is squatting on a property, they are more commonly used to eject friends or former romantic partners who refuse to leave a premises. The unwanted occupant cannot claim they have any legal right or interest in the property.
After the defendant is served, they have five business days in which to file a response. After that deadline, the next step depends on whether the defendant replied.
How an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit Works
After paying the filing fees for the unlawful detainer, start the process by writing a letter — samples are included in the packets available in the county courthouse — asking the person who is squatting on your premises to leave. In this letter, state the amount of notice given for the party to vacate the premises, which may range from three to five days.
You can hand deliver the letter to the individual after making copies for your records. If the party is not home or refuses to answer the door, leave the letter in a conspicuous place. This might include sticking it near the front or back door or on a car windshield.
After leaving the letter at your premises, the next steps involve completing the unlawful detainer complaint and the unlawful detainer summons forms. Sign the complaint. You will need to make copies of the complaint and summons. You keep one copy of each and two copies are made for every defendant. The county clerk gives you a case number upon filing.
The sheriff can usually serve the defendant personally, posting the complaint and summons on your property. If the sheriff cannot serve the defendant personally, give the clerk of the court another two copies of the summons and complaint per defendant, along with two stamped envelopes per defendant. One is mailed to the defendant’s address, aka your property. If you know where the defendant works, the other copy of the summons and complaint is mailed to that address. You can also arrange for a certified process server to serve the defendant.
Once the Defendant is Served
After the defendant is served, they have five business days in which to file a response. After that deadline, the next step depends on whether the defendant replied. If they did, you should fill out a request for a hearing with the clerk of the court. This includes filling out a certificate of service that names the defendants and their addresses.
After filing the document, expect to receive a hearing date from the clerk’s office via the mail. At the hearing, you and the defendant must appear before a judge and make your cases. Bring evidence supporting your right to the property, such as documents, witnesses, and appropriate items. It’s incumbent upon you to provide this evidence to the court. Keep in mind the defendant will also bring their own version of evidence should they have any. After hearing from both parties, the judge renders a decision.
If the defendant did not respond to the complaint and summons, complete the following forms and file them with the clerk of the court:
- Motion for Default & Default
- Judgment for Possession
- Writ of Possession
After your filing, the clerk takes the judgment for possession for signing by a judge. The writ of possession is issued by the clerk. The Sheriff’s Office will execute the writ of possession, for which a fee is charged, and remove the defendant from the premises.
It’s critical that you go the legal route to remove a squatter. You might feel angry enough to face the squatter and make threats. Try to suppress that reaction.
Is the Process Worth the Hassle?
If you bought a property and want to rid yourself of a squatter, the unlawful detainer process is absolutely worth the hassle. You have few legal alternatives to get this person out of your dwelling. If you’re considering purchasing a property with a squatter, much depends on the potential value of the parcel once you’ve gotten rid of the person. Is the potential value of the house worth the inconvenience?
Once the squatter is gone, it’s virtually a certainty that the property will require major repairs and upgrades. Of course, actual tenants and owners faced with foreclosure may trash properties, so a squatter isn’t necessarily a worse situation.
What Not to Do
It’s critical that you go the legal route to remove a squatter. You might feel angry enough to face the squatter and make threats. Try to suppress that reaction. The squatter can call the police and have you arrested. Consider that the squatter may also be armed and dangerous. Keep a cool head and get yourself down to the county courthouse to properly rid yourself of an unwanted freeloader.