Real Estate Owners: watch out for squatters

PALMDALE, CA - FEBRUARY 25:  Real estate broke...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

If you have a property for sale now that is empty, watch out for squatters. Install alarm system if you have to. As a Bay Area man found out the hard way.

A Bay Area man had a property on the outskirts of town, and it's a pretty nice house. However, his economical situation no longer permits him to keep the house, so he moved to a smaller place, and asked his realtor to sell the house. His realtor lined up a buyer, except when they went to check out the house, there's someone living there.

Welcome to the reality of squatters.

Squatters are basically people who break into empty homes and live there without paying any rent. Most think of squatters as taking over dilapidated ruins, but modern squatters take over regular empty houses and such getting sold and looked empty. They will tell elaborate lies, even provide fake documents, to authorities when questioned. In this down economy, squatters seem to be increasing in numbers, with the number of vacant properties around the area, and lack of job prospects.

Squatters are a MAJOR headache for landlords as it is up to the landlord to prove that squatters are indeed squatters. While squatters cannot gain the title to your property, once they are in residence, they can be hard to get rid of. Squatters must be evicted BY LAW, at least in California, like tenant evictions, once squatters have moved in and established themselves. And that process can take weeks. In this case, even the landlord's wife was fooled, when she went to the location to check it out. Those squatters managed to convince her that they are renting the place, through some agent (fake name). They were so convincing, the landlord's wife even bought them some "welcome" flowers.

The landlord in this case was not so lucky. The sale fell through, and apparently the squatters knew their gig is up and left voluntarily one day. The landlord had to spend $400+ to remove the junk left by the squatters, and the bank foreclosed on the house. At least he's rid of the squatters, but now he'll have a foreclosure on his credit. However, this landlord got off relatively pain-free. Squatters have been known to rip out appliances, graffiti the interior, and generally destroy the whole place before leaving. It *could* have been worse.

One real estate agent estimates that 2% of his listings have been taken over by squatters, in the Greater Bay Area (50-miles or so around San Francisco).

Police consider squatting a low-priority crime, and seldom prosecuted, as it's considered a CIVIL offense, not criminal. In fact, squatting is often lumped under "misc." category. Thus, there is little if any chance that squatters can be "brought to justice" in this case, even though in this case, they have caused this landlord the loss of the sale.

Here are some ways to prevent squatters from targetting your house.

1) Install alarm and and hire security patrols. Short-term contracts are usually available, if you ask for them.

2) Install timers on the TV's, lights, and so on. An empty house attracts attention. Even park an unused clunker in the drive-way may help.

3) Roll your own security system with stuff from Radio Shack and such. Wireless cameras that sends video to a wireles receiver, from which to a recorder is under $200 nowadays.

4) Put up fake "secured by ______" signs in window and lawn, and put in motion-detector lights on the porch and such, combined with a verbal warning (on a recorder, of course).

5) Hire a house-sitter, at least several days a week.

6) Do your only daily patrols. Prepare copies of your ownership papers and keep them in a secure but accessible place. Inspect your property several times a week (even just driving by is fine, if you take a good look). If you spot unfamiliar vehicles in the driveway, lights on when it should not be, and so on, get your documents and call police ASAP.

7) Talk to your neighbors, ask them to call you if they spot anything suspicious.

Good luck in making a quick sale.

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