WASHINGTON, D.C. – Squatting is becoming a growing issue in the United States, tying up rightful owners of properties in lengthy – and costly – legal cases, and experts are noting that just about anyone can be a victim these days, with little to no resolution currently in sight to address the problem.
Jim Burling, a real estate lawyer and Vice President of Litigation for Pacific Legal Foundation, said that homeowners having to deal with squatters illegally living in their properties is becoming a more and more common occurrence, unfortunately.
“I think it’s a fairly big problem and I think it’s pretty hard to avoid,” he said.
While there are many variations to the scheme, most often squatters will target a home that has been left vacant due to foreclosure or the death of its former occupant. In the case of death, these homes are usually left to family members, and while they are in the process of deciding what to do with the property, squatters – who often scan property records in order to find the right opportunity to strike – will move in, change the locks, and become a nightmare for the rightful owner of the property to evict.
It’s not a simple matter of calling the police and having them throw out the interlopers, Burling said, as many times these individuals will claim that they have signed a lease and are paying rent; sometimes it’s just part of the scam, but there are instances of innocent individuals being hoodwinked into signing nonexistent leases to live in properties that the purported landlord – in reality, a con artist – actually doesn’t own.
In these cases, the police have their hands tied, because it’s up to the courts to decide who the rightful occupant of the home is. However, the court system is currently so backed up that it can often take months or even years to evict a squatter, especially if they continually refuse to show up for court dates, which only serves to extend the process even further.
“If somebody is living in a home and saying ‘hey, I signed a lease, I’m paying rent, I have a right to be here,’ whether or not that’s true the police hear that story then they hear a story of somebody who’s not living there and saying ‘this is my place these people don’t belong here,’ the police officer can’t make that legal determination,” Burling said. “It’s not their job. That’s not their bailiwick. If you have that kind of dispute it has to go to court.”
Burling noted that this malady is becoming a greater and greater nuisance to homeowners nationwide, and that the only thing they can do to safeguard themselves is to remain vigilant and to keep unoccupied properties tightly secured.
“If I were a homeowner, I would be really careful about letting my property be vacant for any period of time. I would be very careful about renting it out,” he said. “The courts are backed up, the civil process takes forever, the squatters won’t show up to court and so it just drags on and in the meantime somebody’s living rent-free for a significant period of time.”