When most people need a place to live in, they get enough money together and either rent an apartment or buy a house. But apparently in Florida, all one has to do is find an abandoned piece of property and just move right in.
According to an obscure real estate law in the Sunshine State, anyone can move into a house that has had no visible residents for an extended period, and legally claim to be its owner. The concept of “adverse possession” was established hundreds of years ago when handwritten property records had a high possibility of becoming lost, damaged or illegible. This new loophole kept land in productive use when the identification of its ownership was difficult, or, for example, the owner died without leaving any heirs. If the individual who takes advantage of this rule remains on the premises for seven years, fully paying the land’s taxes and maintaining the property, he is allowed to declare permanent ownership.
In previous years, adverse possession has been implemented in small property line disputes. Nowadays, however, with property records mired in the massive real estate decline and foreclosure backlog in the courts, it has been increasingly utilized by people who seek to permanently take over vacant and abandoned property.
In one prominent example, a $3.1 million waterfront mansion in Boca Raton is currently occupied by 23-year-old Andre De Palma Barbosa, who filed his “adverse possession” claim on the home on December 19. Last July, former owner Michael Comparato signed a deed in lieu of foreclosure with Bank of America, according to Palm Beach County court records.
Such scenarios have unsurprisingly generated problems, as illustrated by Palm Beach and Broward counties in 2010 when at least two men were charged with renting out homes they did not actually own to unaware tenants. The men had used adverse possession to take charge of the properties.
In those cases, the Broward County State Attorney’s office charged one man with one count of organized scheme to defraud more than $20,000 for allegedly renting out six properties that he did not own. Another man was sentenced to a year in jail, and was arrested a second time following his release, on charges of burglary, organized scheme to defraud and contributing to the delinquency of a minor when he attempted to continue renting out homes he didn’t own.
According to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser, there have been 38 claims of adverse possession over the past three years.
In the complaint it has filed against the current occupier of the Boca Raton mansion, Bank of America states that Barbosa is a “squatter” in wrongful possession of the home with no official permission or consent by the actual owner. It requests a permanent injunction preventing Barbosa from trespassing on the property.
“You always have people trying to game the system,” commented Ron Schultz, a former property appraiser in Pinellas and Citrus counties who became involved with adverse possession as an issue when he served as a State House Representative in 2010. “Maybe Barbosa is just having the pleasure of avoiding rent with no real intention or belief that he will get ownership.”
Barbosa has no record of criminal activity in Florida. He presented a Brazilian passport as identification when he filed his claim of adverse possession.
Bank of America’s complaint alleges that law enforcement has been “unwilling to remove the defendants through a criminal trespass charge,” because of the claim.
However, Boca Raton police reports about the dispute show how such situations can become muddled when an adverse possession claim is made on a house that has been repossessed by a lender who is already overwhelmed with foreclosures.
When police officers first arrived at the home on December 26 in response to a report of a suspicious incident, one of them conducted an interview of Barbosa and two other men. The conversations and a review of the adverse possession paperwork determined that the three were apparently within their legal rights to be dwelling on the site.
After they got in touch with the property appraiser’s office, Boca Raton officers initiated efforts to contact Bank of America beginning December 29, according to a police report.
In subsequent calls, officers took note of the fact that bank records still listed the previous owners as having possession of the home. They were also informed that the bank’s property management firm had to handle the incident.
“I spoke to several representatives from Bank of America-Property Resolution Department,” wrote one officer following a call on January 2. “They were unable / unwilling to assert any type of authority on trespassing subjects from the property and I was transferred six times and spoke to a different representative each time.”
Pull Quote: Adverse possession has been increasingly utilized by people who seek to permanently take over vacant and abandoned property.