Protect This House

The following story is completely true…and highly educational. Homeowners, take heed!

Like many people in South Florida, Ms. H doesn’t live here full-time. She bought a house in Palmetto Bay a few years ago to vacation in, and to eventually retire to down the road. When Ms. H is away, she has people look after the house. For a long time, she was lucky enough to find a particularly honest handyman who stayed there and even did the routine maintenance for free. But when he left, it was time to find another house sitter.

As luck would have it, Ms. H had a close friend who had a brother. We’ll call them Mr. A and Mr. A’s sister. After learning that Mr. A was available, Ms. H hired Mr. A to stay in the house. The verbal arrangement was that Mr. A was to live there alone, and for a generous stipend, take care of some outdoor cats while he was there. Even the electricity, water, house cleaning, pool service and lawn maintenance were included in his deal.

So, with the confidence that Mr. A’s sister would not steer her wrong about her brother, Ms. H handed over her keys and a large check to cover the first two months of house sitting.

Two weeks into the engagement, at her regularly scheduled time, the housekeeper came to clean. She used her keys to enter the house only to find four additional people living there. The place was unkempt and there were signs that the additional people were planning on extended stays. There were also reports from neighbors that the house had been used for frequent pool parties with music.

The housekeeper reported her findings to Ms. H immediately. In turn, Ms. H, who used me as her real estate agent when she bought her home, called me for advice. We strategized about the appropriate next steps, but the goal was clear, Ms. H had to get rid of her (now) unwanted house guest ASAP.

I questioned Ms. H about how this came to be. “Do you have anything in writing?” The reply was no. “Did you provide him keys and invite him to live in your home?”  Yes, was the answer. With my experience in lease and tenancy laws, I suggested, “You are likely going to have a hard time getting him to vacate and the law is against you.” Ms. H was shocked, “But he doesn’t even have a lease with me! He’ll certainly follow my request to leave. After all, He is the brother of my friend.”

Ms. H was ready to call Mr. A and ask him to vacate when I suggested, “From here on out, whatever you do, do it in writing (either email or text). This way, you’ll have a time/date stamp should you ever need it.” Ms. H felt it was a bit over-reactive, but agreed. She texted Mr. A and received a reply saying 'OK, I'll leave by 11am tomorrow'.

Getting Mr. A to agree, Ms. H felt a feeling of relief. She immediately called me to tell me the good news. I suggested we get a locksmith and be prepared to change the locks right after his departure, but I also restated my fears that it wouldn't be that easy. As an experienced Realtor, I see some pretty interesting stuff happen and when where one sleeps is threatened, people often show their uglier sides.

The next morning, about 90 minutes before 11am, I got a frantic call from Ms. H. She said Mr. A had just called in an agitated state and told her that he wasn't going anywhere and her house was his residence.

This is when my instincts took over. I told Ms. A to keep the locksmith appointment and I was next calling the Palmetto Bay Police. I arrived at the house just after the police. They were already inside assessing the situation. When they emerged, they told me what I feared. "If he was provided keys by the homeowner without any terms, this house is considered his residence in the eyes of the law. We cannot forcibly remove him." However, they also noticed drug paraphernalia and some questionable behavior from the unwanted extra guests, which turned out to be family members and Mr. A's girlfriend.

Over the next three hours, Police Officers B and T were calm, professional and determined to see if they could convince the unwanted guests to leave, especially because they could see what kind of people had taken up residence in the house.

It was the inconsistency of the stories Mr. A told and the false contact information he provided that escalated this to the next level. At one point Officer T said, "I can't stand when people take advantage of others." By the time everything was done, these amazing Palmetto Bay officers got everyone out with no significant damage to the house or possessions.

So this is a tale of not trusting blindly and making sure you Protect This House.  Written agreements are so incredibly important, especially when it concerns real estate and tenancy. It was the fact that Mr. A said he was not being paid to house sit (a verbal lie) and that Ms. H could produce a cashed stipend check (written fact) that created the opportunity for the Palmetto Bay police officers to do their work so effectively.

This could have gone a very different way. Without some incredible luck and great police work, Ms. H could have been forced to start an eviction through the court system. Besides costs that could have easily reached the thousands, it could also have taken several months to resolve. In that time, Mr. A and his guest could have done extensive damage to the house.