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Want a mansion? Just take one

'Luxury squatters' take over vacant houses and declare themselves owners. In Seattle, one family moved into a $3.3 million place.

By Teresa Mears Jun 29, 2010 5:47PM

For years, the 8,000-square-foot mansion in suburban Seattle sat vacant and for sale, the price gradually coming down from $5.8 million to $3.3 million. One day in June, a 30-year-old woman, a man and two children took down the for-sale signs, changed the locks, moved in and declared it their home.


They didn't actually buy the house, or even rent it. They just moved in and declared it their house.

Jill Lane, who was arrested on a charge of trespassing after two weeks in the house, is not contrite, The Seattle Times' Danny Westneat reports. Not only did she try to take over the mansion, with its wine cellar, home theater, six bedrooms and nine baths, she has staked a claim to 10 other bank-owned houses in the Seattle area.


"Banks do whatever they want and nobody holds them accountable," Lane told Westneat by phone from Disneyland, where she went on vacation after she was released by the police. She and her partner ran a company that pledged to "eliminate mortgages" and help others move into empty foreclosed homes.


"It makes me ill to see what the banks are doing. They aren't using their bailout money to help anyone. So I'm standing up for the people who are being brutalized by banks every day."


And we thought we were making a political statement against the banks by abandoning credit cards and paying cash.

You can listen to a radio interview with Lane here and see TV stories here and here.


Lane is one of a number of people nationwide who are taking over other people's vacant homes, some using a quirk in the law called "adverse possession," which dates to 16th-century England, Sally Kestin reported in the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale. She wrote:

Adverse possession allows non-owners of a property to eventually take ownership if they pay the taxes, occupy, maintain and improve the land for a period of years -- seven in Florida. The purpose was to prevent abandoned properties from sitting idle with no one paying taxes on them.
It's been used mostly to take over abandoned farmland or settle boundary disputes, such as a fence or building encroaching on a neighbor's property.

In Fort Lauderdale's Broward County and neighboring Palm Beach County, three men were arrested on felony charges and a fourth is under investigation for trying to take over 200 houses.


"We look at this as another con job, another get-rich-quick scheme,'' Don TenBrook, a Broward state prosecutor of economic crimes, told the Sun-Sentinel. "You're starting to see them pop up all over the place.''

Fitzroy Ellis tried to claim 48 properties, Broward officials said, including one worth $1 million. He told police he planned to rent out the houses and condos at a good price "since he didn't have to pay anything for the homes,'' the newspaper reported. He was charged with six counts of grand theft -- allegations, he wrote in court documents, that are "false and an abuse of power.''


Mark Guerette of suburban West Palm Beach filed court papers to take possession of 103 homes. Police say Guerette rented out six of the homes and collected more than $20,000 from tenants before he was arrested and charged with running an organized scheme to defraud.


He pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Robert Shearin, said Guerette is trying to help people by rescuing blighted homes. "The banks are letting these properties go down the tubes,'' Shearin told the Sen-Sentinel. "Here's a guy trying to help out, and he ends up in jail.''


In Pasco County, north of Tampa, Stephen Bybel drove around scouting for vacant homes. When he found one he wanted, he posted a small notice on the door, citing "adverse possessions" and saying the property "has been found to be vacant, abandoned, open, unsecured and a hazard and a nuisance to the community."


He gave the owners seven days to contact him. If they failed to do so (and certainly out-of-state banks weren't likely to see those signs), Bybel would claim the property. He did that 72 times, The St. Petersburg Times reported.


He rented 31 of those homes to tenants, collecting $16,780 in rents in January alone, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said. Now all those tenants have to find new places to live.


Bybel, too, told police he was a good guy. He said "he is doing everyone involved a favor, as these vacant properties are being vandalized, burglarized and are a detriment" to neighborhoods, according to a police report.


"This is closer to burglary and grand theft than it is to adverse possession," Pasco County Sheriff Bob White said at a news conference.


Adverse possession isn't the only tactic people have used to move into someone else's luxury home.


Squatters have used bogus deeds to take over luxury homes in Southern California, citing the philosophy of the far-right "sovereign citizens" movement, saying they are beyond the reach of police and the courts. The Southern Poverty Law Center detailed their tactics in a report.


These "luxury squatters" bother the traditional groups that have advocated moving homeless people into homes that truly are abandoned, as detailed in this New York Times story.


"As we've written, squatting in foreclosed properties has become more common as homelessness and foreclosure have gone up. Operation Welcome Home envisions squatting as one part of a larger struggle to end homelessness, not a route to fancy free houses," Natalie Wendt wrote in the End Homelessness blog at


"This (Seattle) case isn't really about squatters. It's about two brazen and greedy people (seriously, nine bathrooms?) who tried to steal property and dragged two kids and an entire movement through the mud with them," Wendt said.


More from MSN Money:

Jul 19, 2011 12:38PM

First, please, all of you, stop saying you lost "your" home.  It isn't "yours" until you pay for it. If you borrow money to buy a thing, and you don't pay back the money you borrowed, the thing you put up as collateral goes to the person (or company) to whom you owed the money.  Period.


Second, no one has ever held a gun to anyone's head (as far as I know) and made them sign a promissory note on a fabulous house they clearly could never afford.  The individual's own greed drove the bus that dropped them off at the intersection of "In Over Your Head" and "Homeless".  Grow up, take responsibility, and stop blaming your troubles on someone else.  No one is really "entitled" to anything!  You should earn what you get. 

Jul 19, 2011 2:13PM
are you people blind or just stupid? 
 so these people are NOT doing anything wrong!

hell , the banks steal from us all the time but you dont cry about that do you?
Jul 19, 2011 1:27AM
What is the difference in a squatter getting the house for free or a bank or mortgage company taking it from you after they stick you with an adjustable mortgage or a interest only loan unknowingly and after a few months  just keep raising the amount of the payment until you just can't afford it anymore and they are unwilling to work with you at all ! How much longer are we going to allow the banks and mortgage company's to get away with this ! They put a lot of people and their families out of their homes  and then they have the nerve to ask us for a bail out , I don't know how they sleep at night  ! ! ! What would you rather have move in to the vacant house next door to you ,  a squatter that will clean up the place and fix it up or a gang of drug dealers ?

If people could occupy the home as it is said they do here.....dont you think the original owners would be the first to take them over?  Stay in them free until they can be given the legal papers on them?  If that worked foreclosure would be useless...and everyone would foreclose.  I would think not trying that is advisable. If seems heartless for banks to take them and allow them to fall apart...and it actually is....A better solution would be to sell them for the money owed ....often not too much....or back anyone who could have the cash including original owners. It would take changes in laws because actually if the original owner hits the lottery they can take the property back for the next 5 years if sold for taxes.........Ownership takes that long. Owners have the right to recovery.


End the false sales,then sell them legally at once no long period of grace given.... is best for all...including the original owner.  If they can finanance the balance owed ...with a now very low payment...let them buy it...they already have equity in the property.   If it means losing that equity then they can be burned down so the banks can't sell for any higher than the balance owed.  There is nothing to stop a bank from selling a house for as much as they can get...and if a recovery took place it could be a large amount.No one should ever lose equity in a should be returned. It is ONLY the unpaid balance the banks get cheated out of....keeping the equity is stealing if truth is known.. . 

Jul 19, 2011 12:51PM

Bottom line, this person is working within the law.  Will he get to keep the property?  Who knows -- but he invested time and energy researching the property etc.  If he manages to live there for three years and gets to keep the house -- good for him.  Remember, while he is living there he will be maintaining the property, providing upkeep for the lawn, etc.  I would think the neighbors would be happier that the home is occupied and not falling to ruin!


The housing situation in this country right now is horrific.  Too many people are upside down in their mortgages from the drop in housing prices, and too many more were upside down in their mortgages from the MOMENT THEY PURCHASED THEIR HOME.   The banks let it happen, the government encouraged this -- and this goes back to the Clinton administration so there is blame enough to go around for both Dems and Repubs.  Additionally -- people buying homes turned a blind eye to common sense.  I know when I was looking to buy my current home -- when the mortgage broker told me how much of a loan I "qualified" for -- I just about fainted -- I KNEW I couldn't possible afford what they were telling me I could afford.  It was VERY tempting to upsize and buy a much bigger, more luxurious house... so I can understand how people get caught up in it -- but come on -- we all have to own some of the responsibility ourselves as much as I would like to put all the blame on the government and the banks -- ultimately -- the buyer has to own a lot of it.

Mar 1, 2012 8:56PM
She is a thief, nothing more, and shouldn't be given a break.
Dec 8, 2011 3:18AM

As much as this is just a sick scheme to own what they cannot afford to put anything down as down payment, maybe on, and pay rightfully for, as  it is evidently legal with the 'Adverse Possession" law. Laws can be' changed 'however, even if it takes time. Maybe we need to do this? Evidently the "swatters" are able to pay the taxes and keep the home up with utilities so they cannot be so poor after all. Why do they not buy a home like other people?

The owners would love to just "squat" and pay only taxes ( not mortgages) for a given time in order to own it totally given a short period of years!, Then they could keep the home up,during the time they wait, and enjoy living " peacefully" in which they have a right according to the law of the land! So that law of not being ble to stay in their own home and "squat" needs change also. Maybe hard times came to  the owners/? "Breaking and entering" is illegal and the "squatters got into those homes somehow, and the banks own them.The squatters cannot be the poor or how would they pay utilities and taxes and all other bills a mansion or any home would bring them? The only difference is they are free and clear of the "big" mortgage payment giving them lots of money to use for other things!Who would not like aquiring a home that way!?But it is still "stealing" in my book.


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