Dear Real Estate Adviser,
The owner of a house next door is deceased, and the property has been vacant for years. The taxes are now being paid by a mortgage company that has bad reviews for fraud. We want to buy the property but are scared to deal with this company. Now our neighbor is trying to claim the property by putting goats on it. Can he take over the property just by putting livestock there?
-- Bonnie B.
Bah! The neighbor is no doubt trying to take advantage of "squatter's rights" -- or adverse possession -- laws that in some cases enable people to gain control of land that's not their own by openly using and maintaining it. Hypothetically, this occupancy must be executed for a set number of consecutive years, varying widely from state to state. (It's 5 years in California, 10 in New York and 20 in Illinois, for example).
No- no- notorious
To prove actual possession, an individual must show unopposed and continual ("open and notorious") physical possession of the entire area of the property that he or she is trying to claim. As for the goats: While "pasturing," as the courts call it, is one way of showing open use, the entity paying taxes on the land and holding the title almost always prevails in court. In this instance, that would be the mortgage firm you mention, which I will call Prince of Darkness Mortgage, or PODM.
Given this mortgage company's background, which includes taking over the servicing of mortgages and then routinely claiming payments are never received, I strongly offer this advice to the goatherd, and at least tacitly to you: Take the route of Sir Robin in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and beat a brave retreat. Or in the case of the neighbor's goats, bleat a brave retreat.
It's likely that PODM, which has pages and pages of consumer-fraud complaints out on the Web, also employs nimble, go-for-the-jugular lawyers who may not only find a way to have your squatting neighbor arrested, but also may seize his goats, possibly for use in some kind of ritualistic sacrifice.
Semi-kidding aside, courts have become very skeptical of squatter scams and are charging many adverse possessors with criminal trespass. So I hope those goats have a good lawyer!
Get a meaner lawyer
OK, if you still really, really, really want to acquire this parcel, which means dealing with this chronically unresponsive and scurrilous mortgage firm, bring an experienced attorney to the table. PODM will probably be glad to get rid of the place, though not without ignoring your calls first or at least making you feel roundly uncomfortable. If you do want to go forward this way, buy the property outright. You don't want these folks holding the paper because they have a tendency to wrongfully damage consumer credit ratings.
In the meantime, if the goats are troublesome and the neighbor is not cleaning up after them, check city ordinances to determine if they're actually legal inside your town and if not, make a complaint. Municode.com is a good site for checking ordinances, or you can just call the city. For the neighbor, this may literally "get his goat," but it may spare his animals from a worse fate.
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