A military family with a home in Tampa, Florida returned from an overseas PCS to two big surprises. Not only were people living in their home without their permission or knowledge, but a management company hired by the Home Owners Association (HOA) had the squatters sign a fake lease and started collecting rent -- and keeping it.
This is where the story gets messy. According to this news report, the Tupper family had previously chosen to not live in the house because they believed some of the building materials were making them sick. They had also stopped paying their HOA dues and were about $5,000 behind. HOA officials said they were using the management company and fake lease to collect payment on that debt.
The squatters trashed the home, leaving the family with major damage to repair. So now not only do they still owe the HOA money, they have to deal with damage costs as well as a legal battle with the management company for what they say was illegally renting out their home.
The Tuppers are far from the first military family to deal with squatters in their empty home. Because many municipalities don't require any kind of proof of rental or ownership to turn on utilities -- just payment -- it's fairly easy for someone to break into an empty house and start using it as their own. If you have to move away and are unable to sell or have someone rent from you or occupy your home while you're gone, things can go south fast.
That's why the experts over at the Military Property Project strongly recommend simply finding someone to keep an eye on your house while you are gone. Even though squatters are on the extreme side of property ownership problems and probably won't happen to you, you should still protect yourself.
"The best defense to long term squatters on an empty house is having a frequent eye on the property," said Amy Shick, a military spouse and co-founder of the Military Property Project. "Even if you don't know the neighbors, introduce yourself and give them your contact information before you leave the area. Secondly, have a friend drive by monthly. If you don't have a friend in the area, hire a property manager, real estate agent or scout to check up on the property monthly."
So what do you do if you find yourself in this situation? Shick said while she hasn't personally dealt with it, she would treat it as a crime, call the police and initiate a police report.
"My next step would be to change the locks and photograph, video and document everything. My next steps would be a visit to the local JAG office, a call to the insurance company and then a real estate attorney."
She also said she would document the entire process.
"I would keep a journal of every detail: every phone call, email, or correspondence regarding this situation. It's emotional, and that journal will tell the story as it unfolds and then you will not need to recall events from memory during such an emotional time," she said.