A growing interest in acquiring property through “adverse possession”?

I highlighted a story last week about a Texas man who hoped to become the owner of a $350,000 McMansion through “adverse possession.” One writer suggests there is a growing interest in this method of acquiring land:

People have been making adverse possession claims for decades. The most famous cases happened on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1980s and ’90s, when artists, punks and homeless people squatted in vacant buildings and brownstones.

Under the law at the time in New York State, people could take possession of a property if they lived there for ten years and made efforts to “cultivate and improve” the property, says Kathy Zalantis, a real estate lawyer with Silverberg Zalantis in White Plains, NY. That’s why you saw people who did this during the 1980s and ’90s mowing the grass, planting trees and gardens, and making structural improvements to the buildings themselves, Zalantis says.

Now, interest in adverse possession is growing again. Across America, hundreds of thousands of homes are sitting empty. If you live in New York or have visited since 2008, you’ve probably noticed all those big empty buildings that were constructed during the housing boom but never quite finished, and are now sitting empty. Zalantis says she’s receiving a big surge in phone calls from people who have taken up residence in empty spaces (yes, squatting), including one just this Wednesday.

Most of the calls are from people taking advantage of the foreclosure crisis by moving into vacant houses, apartments and condominiums where the foreclosure process has stalled in the courts, Zalantis says. Now they’re living rent-free. And they’re checking to see if they can take permanent ownership of the place.

It seems like two things are key then to acquiring property by this method: being in the building for a certain amount of time (which appears to vary by state) and doing something to maintain/improve the property. I assume, however, that the rightful owners can come back to the property and kick out the squatters. Therefore, shouldn’t someone who pursues this be pretty sure that the current owners have such little interest in the property that they are willing to lose ownership?

In the case of a lot of single-family foreclosures, I can’t imagine banks would be willing to simply write off their losses and lose these properties. However, if housing prices continue to drop, perhaps some institutions will be willing to lose properties rather than devote resources to trying to squeeze some money out of these homes.

A unique way to acquire a McMansion: “adverse posession”

Amidst many foreclosures across the country, one Texas man believes he has found a way to acquire a suburban McMansion for $16. The move involves invoking “adverse possession” to take possession of the $300,000 home:

“This is not a normal process, but it is not a process that is not known,” he said. “It’s just not known to everybody.”

He says an online form he printed out and filed at the Denton County courthouse for $16 gave him rights to the house. The paper says the house was abandoned and he’s claiming ownership…

But, Robinson said just by setting up camp in the living room, Texas law gives him exclusive negotiating rights with the original owner. If the owner wants him out, he would have to pay off his massive mortgage debt and the bank would have to file a complicated lawsuit.

Robinson believes because of the cost, neither is likely. The law says if he stays in the house, after three years he can ask the court for the title.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as it would require someone, the true owner, the bank holding the mortgage, or the government, to move this guy out. It is funny that the neighbors seem to be the ones leading the charge against this guy: are they simply jealous that he was able to acquire a home for this little money?

But perhaps this story hints at a positive side effect of the foreclosure crisis: states and other governmental bodies get a chance to review all sorts of laws regarding mortgages, foreclosures, and housing possession.