TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office will begin issuing warnings to people seeking to take over abandoned homes.
They may be getting conned and very likely are breaking the law.
County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez said his employees have seen a sharp increase in the number of people filing adverse possession applications with his office. He said he believes the people have been convinced by third parties that they can simply move into an empty home or building, pay its taxes and eventually earn ownership of the property without having to buy it.
Henriquez said in many instances it's the same people escorting people into his office and talking them through filling out the necessary paperwork without signing anything themselves. He said the escorts appear to be portraying themselves as some form of real-estate broker, but in truth, he said he's not sure how or if they are profiting from the arrangement.
So he said his office will begin issuing warning notices to the people filling out the paperwork, both in English and Spanish since many coming into the office are Hispanic.
"Rather than accuse people of anything, we want to give them something they can look at with things to look out for to make sure they're not being scammed," Henriquez said.
As a news release issued by the office Friday explains, adverse possession laws date back centuries. The intent was to allow people to take over abandoned land or property and put it back into productive use. They typically establish a process for a person to one day take ownership of the property, put it to good use and pay taxes.
But in this case, people are moving into homes that haven't been abandoned by the owner or lender, even though they may be empty or neglected.
Florida's own law dates back to the 1800s and the Property Appraiser's Office gives out free applications.
Appraiser's office general counsel Will Shepherd said it typically comes into play on vacant land. In a metropolitan community like Hillsborough County, such applications are rare, maybe one or two a year.
Last year there were suddenly more than 100, and so far this year, more than 120.
Typically, in more modern times, adverse possession laws come into play when, for example, there is a strip of land between two homes that belongs to neither homeowner for one reason or another. One homeowner mows it for years, plants a garden and, through that maintenance and by paying taxes on it, is able after seven years to take formal possession.
"The funny thing about it is there isn't really a specific line," Shepherd said. "The best way to describe adverse possession is as a statute of limitation for trespassing.
"You trespass on someone's land for seven years and do it without objection, you could probably claim the property. In the meantime, you are trespassing. If there's a building on the property and you break in, you probably are breaking and entering. So you're clearly running a risk here."
Hillsborough authorities have arrested several people who have tried to claim adverse possession, but the vast majority of people filing have not been charged.
The Property Appraiser's Office is trying to warn people who may be innocently following someone else's guidance that they could be getting themselves into trouble.
Staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.