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Old law makes squatting tempting for some Florida residents

A U.S. law hundreds of years old may be a tempting option for some enterprising Floridians hoping to gain ownership of abandoned properties. With the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, hundreds of homes facing foreclosure are being abandoned, possibly for years, while banks go through the process of repossession.

The law of adverse possession means it's theoretically possible for a squatter to eventually gain ownership of a property if he or she has lived on the land "openly and notoriously" -- including maintaining the property -- rather than hiding in the abandoned building. Florida law requires squatters to reside in the abandoned property for a minimum of seven years before adverse possession can take effect. The squatters must also pay property taxes during the residency period.

One man squatted in an abandoned $2.5 million Boca Raton mansion, even providing paperwork claiming adverse possession when police arrived to evict him. Lenders foreclosing on the properties are in most cases able to evict squatters in time. Bank of America, the foreclosing lender in this case, has filed a lawsuit against the trespasser to remove him from the property.

Although squatting to own wouldn't generally be considered an easy way to claim ownership of an abandoned property, the law may protect residents who made a genuine mistake, such as unknowingly having an incorrect or invalid deed.

Many Floridians are filing for bankruptcy and losing their homes. The incidences of squatters in this struggling economy hoping to take advantage of adverse possession may start catching on; anyone attempting this maneuver shouldn't expect to gain one over on banks that legally own rights to the property. However, with increasing numbers of people attempting adverse possession -- 38 cases in Palm Beach County alone over the past 3 years -- this may force banks to maintain abandoned properties under their jurisdiction.

Source: ABC 10 News, "Squat to own: Adverse possession going mainstream?" Feb. 1, 2013

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