Thanks to existence of adverse possession laws in some states -- which in rare cases allows a person to claim title to an abandoned property after occupying it for an extended time -- Cherie Fields, 25, and her husband Owen Fields, 27, apparently thought they could live at a vacant home in Lakeland, Fla., for free. On March 27, the couple moved into a foreclosed home valued at $160,000 (pictured above), changed the home's locks, turned on the electricity and brought in furniture.
"Besides having the cable guy come out, and the meter guy come out, and the water guy come out to turn everything on, it looked like normal people moving in," Lakeland resident and neighbor Darin Pratt told ABC Action News in Tampa. Only the home on Echo Lane still belonged to a woman in California, who confirmed that it had been foreclosed on. Despite filing for "adverse possession," the squatters were soon kicked out, and charged with burglary of a residence, grand theft and scheming to defraud, according to WESH 2 News in Orlando.
"I knew a little bit about adverse possession just from doing some research," homeowners' association president Danny Rodriguez told the Tampa TV station. (Rodriguez had alerted the case to the authorities.) "You need to be in the home for seven years. I knew they weren't here for seven years."
Florida's law of adverse possession dates back over a century -- to allow someone who cared for an unclaimed or abandoned piece of farmland for seven years or more to own it, but lately it's been used as an excuse for squatting in foreclosed homes -- and according to Tampa's ABC station those incidents appears to be rising. In Boca Raton, 23-year-old Andre Barbosa claimed adverse possession in defending his seven-month "residency" in a $2.5 million luxury home in the millionaire's enclave. The foreclosed home (see below gallery) rightfully belonged to Bank of America -- but that didn't stop Barbosa from living in the home, which he dubbed "Templo de Kamisamar," for free and throwing parties there for his friends.
Similarly in Texas, 51-year-old Kenneth Robinson cited that state's adverse possession law as allowing him to live in a $340,000 Dallas-area home. While residing there for eight months, Robinson claimed to have kept the two-story, 3,200-square-foot home "fully maintained," keeping the front lawn mowed and the house clean, and even claiming to have "bought rights" to the home at a Denton County courthouse for just $16. (In both Barbosa's and Robinson's case, neighbors alerted authorities and the men were eventually evicted.)
It doesn't end there, either: Entire communities have been taken over by squatters who claim they're acting under rights of adverse possession. In Tarrant County, Texas, squatters have been claiming and looting vacant homes in Fort Worth and nearby suburbs -- properties with a total value exceeding $8 million. The properties that have been left by owners who recently died, or by owners absent because of job duties or illness, appear to be most at risk of squatters, and some property owners have returned home to find their houses trashed or looted.
"It's not healthy for anybody -- for the neighborhood, for the county," Fort Worth resident Joe Bruner, who lived next door to a home that had been occupied by squatters, told The Associated Press. "You don't come in and steal somebody's home."
According to Miami-Dade Property appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the abuse of adverse possession is turning into a nightmare for homeowners and law enforcement. In Miami-Dade County alone, adverse-possession claims rose from 30 in 2011 to 70 in 2012, CBS Miami reported. Just in the first three months of 2013, a whopping 52 applications were filed. "[It's] a new frontier in fraudulent activity," Lopez-Cantera told CBS Miami.