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In Florida, evicting unwelcome guest is no simple matter

You meet someone down on his luck. Out of the golden goodness of your heart, you let him crash for a while. Pay half the bills, you say. Take the couch. We'll split the milk.

You shake on it.

But wait. Turns out, your new roomie hails from the underworld. You're in over your head, and you want the milk back. Out. Now. Vamoose.

Not so simple.

"Nine times out of 10, you're dealing with a reasonable person who understands," said Ivan Lenoir, a Tampa lawyer who specializes in evictions. "On occasion, you get people who don't."

In Florida, giving the boot involves going through court and spending money. If the tenant doesn't fight, the process can end within 25 days, said Clearwater lawyer Venessa Bornost. Sometimes, it can drag on longer.

"Many people aren't aware that if they invite someone in and that person refuses to leave, they can't just kick them out," she said.

Michael Roberts, a Largo home­owner who opened his home to three people, had just begun the formal eviction process when he broke down and shot his tenants and himself Sunday night.

It's an extreme case. But the bigger issue is more common.

The thing is, experts say, a contract holds — spoken or otherwise. Even if you worked up the details over beer and karaoke, a tenant has rights. Getting something in writing is still the strongest defense.

"If I say you can come live with me with for six months and pay half my bills, we've essentially created a lease agreement," Lenoir said. "It's oral, but it's valid."

People also assume police can throw out squatters.

Law enforcement will respond when you call, said Pinellas County sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. If there's a crime, officers will handle it appropriately.

But if you're just not getting along?

"It's important to let people know that if they have a complaint and wish to file a report, that is one way of getting started," Barreda said. "But some matters do end up being handled in civil court."

Judson Randall of Safety Harbor learned this when he invited two women to stay with him for a month. Eight months later, they wouldn't leave. He started sleeping at his office in Tampa.

He was shocked by the court costs — $300 for the civil filing fee, $20 to have the tenants served.

"I had to choose between do I pay my bills or get them out," said Randall, who won his battle in January. He hasn't had houseguests since.

Bottom line, experts say, be careful before you offer to shelter anyone — even when you're just being nice like the folks in Fargo who took in strangers with flooded homes.

P.S.: Hurricane season starts in two months.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

In Florida, evicting unwelcome guest is no simple matter 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 11:32pm]
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