January 13, 2011 | 6:43am
Need a house for free? Luckily, you're in South Florida, which exists for the sole purpose of providing lots and lots of people with houses. Recently, a lot of those houses have turned up empty. So why not just take one?
Starting in early 2009, mortgage broker Mark Guerette cruised through North Lauderdale in his white Hummer, looking for telltale signs of abandoned houses. Then he made some calls, filed some papers, and finally entered the homes. When he started renting the properties, the state attorney stepped in and gave him two years' probation
for fraud. But nobody ever prosecuted him for taking the homes, which he did using "adverse possession," a term most lawyers don't hear after law school.
The Juice took a ride through North Lauderdale with Guerette as he explained the process he used to find and take over unused houses. Read on and you could be a bona fide squatter by next week.
1. Case the neighborhood.
Who's out in the streets? What kind of cars do you see in the driveways? While foreclosure and abandonment have ravaged all classes of Florida neighborhoods, it's the modest single-family homes, the first rung of comfortable homeownership for the working class, that see the most cleanly broken dreams. Oh, right, should have warned you: This may get you a house, but it's going to be kind of depressing.
2. Look for the signs.
"I've developed an eye for this," says Guerette, peering out the windshield. An orange placard from the city (pictured above) is the telltale beacon. On closer approach: Does it have a realtor sign or a lockbox on the door? Bad news: Somebody's trying to sell it. A car in the driveway isn't necessarily what it seems, as neighbors often park by abandoned houses to discourage break-ins. Multiple abandonment notices are a green light, and if the lawn looks like shit, it's probably good to go. Dealbreaker: a "no trespassing" sign. Or at least one you can't surreptitiously remove.
3. Do some research.
Write down the addresses of homes that look like good bets, then go home and plug them into the county property appraiser's website
. That will tell you who owns the place and what it's worth. Usually, a bank or lending company will be the listed owner. Occasionally, an investor who's skipped town (one of Guerette's former properties is owned by a dude in Israel). Often, when banks foreclose, they never get around to taking it out of the former owner's name -- which is good news for you if they're not around.
4. Send off some letters.
By now, you've entered very murky, uncharted legal waters. There's no official form to send off to the bank letting them know you're moving into their house, because few people in their right mind have ever stopped to think this might be legal. At the advice of his lawyer, Guerette started sending notarized letters to the listed owners, informing them of his intent to take the properties and citing the adverse possession clause
, which says that if you occupy someone else's property for seven years, it's yours. Guerette says that in the vast majority of cases, he never heard back.
5. Move in!
You've still got a hell of a lot of work to do: replace the patio doors that teenaged junkies smashed in, mow the untamed lawn, lay a new sewer connection because the owners angrily poured cement down the drain when they were evicted, patch leaks, etc. You should scope the place to assess damage before you commit: Some properties are in much better shape than others. Once your furniture is in, hook up the cable, sit back, and relax -- until next month, when you get the water bill for the past 18 months.
The good news is, if you manage to stay in the house without being evicted for seven whole years, the Florida Statutes say the house is good and yours. Now you're free and clear to rent it out, renovate, or even take out a nice, fat home equity loan. Good luck!
DISCLAIMER: New Times and the author do not endorse, condone, or encourage the adverse possession of property. This is intended as an approximate description of how Mark Guerette possessed homes, which he says he has completely stopped doing. Shoutout to Assistant State Attorneys Al Guttman and Don Tenbrook!
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