One Way to Avoid the Danger of Squatters

By Robert L. Cain

They can move in and be a nightmare to get out.  These are bad tenants, but not the run-of-the-mill bad tenants a landlord actually rented to; they might be described as bad tenants on steroids.  They are squatters. Somehow they get access to a vacant property, maybe by breaking in, or maybe by getting a key from a landlord.  Here’s how it works.  Since we may no longer physically show a property, what with the concerns about infections from the Coronavirus, what do we do? We either leave a key for them or we put a key in a lockbox and give them the code.  Then they “squat.” Good luck getting them out.

Believe it or not, squatters have rights,.  Call the police, but the police in most cases won’t do anything.  One case, squatters had had gone so far as to dummy up a hand-scrawled rental agreement, even forging the signature of the property owner. The owner called the police, who looked at the scrawled rental “agreement” with the phony signature, said it was a civil matter, and left. The job of the police is to uphold criminal law and let civil infractions be handled in the courts.  Yes, I know, they’re stealing the property, but that’s not how the police view it.  if a squatter does show up on a property. Zillow suggests the following actions:

  • Immediately call the police: Simply calling local law enforcement may avoid further action. The police will be able to determine if the person is a trespasser or a squatter, and they will either remove them or inform you that a civil suit is necessary.
  • Serve an eviction notice: Some squatters may leave right after they’re served the notice.
  • File a civil lawsuit for the squatter’s illegal use of your property: Procedures vary lcoally, so check your local laws, but typically you’ll need to attend an eviction court hearing.
  • Have the squatters removed by local authorities: You may be charged a small fee, but it’s a safe option for removing squatters from private property.
  • Legally handle any belongings squatters leave behind: Some personal items may be left behind — check with a legal professional before removing any of their belongings. You may have to hire a cleaning service if they created a mess. (www.zillow.com/rental-manager/resources)

What a hassle! What a nightmare! It’s best, of course, if squatters never get into your property.  Worst-case situation, they are protected by state and local law and it can cost thousands of dollars to get these criminals out. But here’s one sure-fire way to at least avoid phony-prospect squatters—prequalification.

Chances are you’ve created a photo tour of your property either with still photographs or an actual video tour.  That piques the interest of a prospective tenant, but most people still want to see the property in person.  They need to not only see inside the property but also the outside and the surrounding area. Not willing or able to meet them personally, you provide access through a key. That’s where the squatting danger arises.  So before you let anyone physically tour your property, ensure they could eventually be actual, legitimate paying tenants.

Use an online application to see the property.  That means they have to fill out an application that shows they are who they say they are and show they meet your basic rental requirements. They need to provide picture ID, prove they have sufficient, verifiable income to rent your property, and a verifiable current address.  It’s not a complete rental application, only one that prequalifies your prospect, much like mortgage lenders do for home buyers. It only shows they are qualified to see your property. Where to get one in a minute.   

You need basic verification such as calling their employers and their current landlords, and verifying their presented ID, probably a driver’s license.  All that done, now they get to see inside, but not before.

Online rental applications are available from Zip Reports, from some rental owners associations though none that I called about rental applications for members returned my calls, and online. They don’t need to fill out an entire application, just their name, address, source of income, residence, and current landlord’s name and phone. The complete application comes after your prospect decides to rent from you. If your prospect won’t fill out the application, too bad for him or her. They may claim it’s “unfair,” “none of your business,” or some other lame excuse. But it’s your property and you have the right to say who can enter it. No verification, no access to your property.

They may also try saying you’re illegally discriminating against them, that it’s a Fair Housing violation. Wrong. The same requirements go for everyone regardless of race, religion, etc. The pertinent section of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U,S, Code §3604 reads “it shall be unlawful … (d) To represent to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when such dwelling is in fact so available.” You aren’t saying the dwelling is not available only that you require verification that someone exists before you will let him or her enter it. Just be sure to keep copies of every prequalification application you get.

Here’s how to do it:

First, when you create the photo tour of the property, do it so it looks professional with good pictures and effective descriptions.  Lots of information is available online on how to do that well. If you are going to provide voice over, practice, practice, practice.  For text describing the property, proofread, proofread, proofread.

Second, create rental requirements and post them online either on your website or other internet rental sites along with the photos of the property and say that in order to physically view the property, the landlord must verify your information with picture ID together with proof of income and residence.

Third, use an application for prospects to fill out so you can prequalify them to view the property. They will be invited to view the property if they meet the rental requirements and can prove they would be qualified to rent.

Fourth, once you receive the application, verify everything before you offer them a key. And once the prospect views the property, follow up with them about what they thought of your rental and change the locks. Then thoroughly clean everything.

Will this process ensure you never get a squatter?  Of course not.  Squatters scout out vacant properties that they can break into and dare the property owners to try to get them out. But ensuring that every prospect who wants to tour your property is real and might be qualified to rent from you gets rid of one opportunity for squatters.  Check everything and verify everything.

Written for Zip Reports where they do employment and rental screening.

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