Adverse Possession: Empty Houses to the Needy

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By Jason Beahm on November 10, 2010 11:55 AM

Ever heard of adverse possession?

It's a seemingly odd area of law that provides a path for a person to take possession of property that is legally owned by someone else. Under adverse possession, you can become the legal owner of someone else's property if you take possession of it for several years. States' laws on adverse possession vary, but we have a complete list available at Findlaw.

Adverse possession came up in a The New York Times article about Save Florida Homes Inc. owner Mark Guerette, who has been leasing foreclosed homes to needy families in Broward County, Florida. The twist: Guerette and his business do not own the homes.

Guerette is making use of an 1869 Florida statute that says the bundle of properties he has seized will belong to him if the owners do not claim them within seven years. A version of the same law was used in the 1850s to claim possession of runaway slaves.

Depending upon who you talk to, Guerette is either a hero or a crook. He is currently facing fraud charges in North Lauderdale over his business practices. He is facing up to 15 years in prison. This despite the fact that Guerette, 47, included an addendum in his leases that stated that he was not the legal owner. Yet another reason why adverse possession cases are complicated: according to Sam Goren, city attorney of North Lauderdale, adverse possessors are trespassing.

The business started after Guerette drove around Florida neighborhoods looking for houses that had been declared a "public nuisance." That was a green light to Guerette, because it meant that the owners were out of touch.

Guerette then filed court claims on about 100 properties. He then picked the best 20 and sent letters to the banks and the owners to alert them of his plans. Nineteen of the 20 never responded. Guerette then began moving tenants into the properties, allowing some of them to fix them up instead of paying rent. At his peak, Guerette managed 17 homes with renters.

It will be a very interesting case to watch. It is certainly a novel approach to adverse possession and yet another sign of the times in foreclosure and real estate law.

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