Ask Lucas

Ask Lucas 025: How Do I Handle a Short-Term Squatter?

Summary:

Ben from California is asking if he can move back into his condo that has been highjacked by a friend.

Full Transcript:

Lucas: What’s up everyone, welcome to the 25th episode of Ask Lucas. Today we’re talking about how to handle rogue guests and unapproved tenants. Today’s question is from Ben in California, he has one of the wildest stories I’ve ever heard of. I’m Lucas Hall from Landlordology and Cozy and this is a bite size Q&A show where I answer your questions about landlording and property management. If you have a question leave a recorded message on asklucas.com or call us and leave us a voice mail and I’ll try to answer it in this podcast.

Landlordology and Ask Lucas are brought to you by Cozy. Cozy is an online property management tool that helps landlords like you and me to screen tenants and collect their rent online. It’s also completely free, that’s completely free. I use Cozy to help me manage my own properties. Seriously, I’ve been using it for years and it saves me hundreds of hours and even thousand of dollars in rent collection and screening fees. Not to mention I’m really able to set it up and forget about it, it’s the only product I know that can make it that easy. Join me and join 80,000 other people who trust Cozy with their rent. It’s a best in class product and it’s completely free. Sign up at Cozy.co, that’s C-O-Z-Y dot C-O. Okay, now let’s here from Ben in California.

Ben: Hi, my name is Ben. I own a condo in Woodland Hills California. I have a friend that I let stay there. I never signed a lease with him. He is taking ownership of the property, he put the bills in his name, changed the locks. I went to stay with my mom while she was sick, when I came back he moved his girlfriend in and his dog and changed everything. He’s telling me that I can’t move back in there. I’m wondering if I have legal grounds to move back into my place that I never actually rented out. I never got any rent. I never signed the lease, I just let him stay there and now he’s saying that I have to legally evict him if I want him out and that I cannot come back to my place. I’m asking if I can legally move back into my condo with him still there.

Okay, thank you, bye.

Lucas: Hey Ben, thanks for your question. I’m so sorry to hear about your sick mom, I hope she gets better soon. Thank you for sharing your story, what a crazy story. Let me recap it for the audience, you left to take care of your mom and then you let a friend stay in your apartment or your condo while you were gone, probably to house sit I would guess. When you came back or as you were coming back he informed that “I’ve taken possession of the property”, and that he goes “I’ve changed the locks, and you can’t come back. I’m living here. I’ve even moved in my dog and my girlfriend. Good luck getting me out. If you want me out you have to evict me.”

Wow, what a crazy friend, so-called friend. This is certainly not a friend. I feel bad that you’re put in this situation and shame on him for even risking that friendship. Here’s what I think, in a normal landlord/tenant relationship there is the right of exclusive access so that tenant has the right to occupy that unit and the landlord doesn’t, unless it’s a live-in landlord situation. I don’t believe you said this was a roommate situation, this guy was just house sitting for you. You didn’t live with him previously and this was your primary residence. Because you don’t have a lease or because that person didn’t pay any sort of rent or compensation to live there, there really is no landlord/tenant relationship and therefor there is no exclusive access or exclusive right to live there.

This tenant is seriously taking advantage of you and is claiming that he has tenant rights or squatter’s rights even maybe when it’s just not true. He doesn’t, he’s a guest and he never had those rights in the first place because there was never that landlord/tenant relationship. As far as I’m concerned if you go over there and change the locks you’re just changing the locks on your primary residence. You’re locking him out but I don’t suggest that you actually lock him out. I never believe that it’s a good idea to cut somebody off because it’s hard to react that quickly, you never want to put somebody on the street. I know that’s an exaggeration of a phrase, “put somebody on the street”, but there are times like this where you might actually because he was planning on sleeping in your place one night, now all of a sudden he doesn’t have a place to live.

I don’t think that’s healthy for anybody and you could be liable for any damages were that caused but what I would do, and this is not legal advice, but what I would do if I were in your situation is I would call him up and say “Listen, you don’t have any rights to this property. You were a guest, you certainly shouldn’t have moved in anybody else and you have no right to touch my personal property, like my locks. You can’t change my locks, I’m sorry, you don’t have a lease and nor did you pay any rent. You don’t have any tenants rights.” Now I would tell him, “If you don’t leave and your stuff out in 24 hours it’s going to get really ugly.” Then after 24 hours call up the police and say “Listen, somebody has hijacked my house. I went on vacation, I let somebody stay there and now he’s denying me access to my personal property.” I’m sorry, “My personal residence.”

Just say “Listen I’m going over there to confront him. It might get ugly, would you like to come with me.” Often times the police will send over an officer to escort you and to watch the situation. They often times won’t get involved but they will attend with you and stand behind you as you knock on the door so that the person who’s hunkered down in your property won’t come out with a baseball bat. I think having a police officer there might enforce that or send at least the message that you have the law on your side, whether you do or not. I think it would be the muscle behind you trying to enforce this person to get out. Then on your way over there call him up and say “Listen, I’m on my way. The police are coming with me. We’re going to confront you when I get there. If you don’t want to deal with that then you should leave now or get out.” And then do it, show up with the police.

I think it would be okay to change the locks as long as you don’t lock him out. I emphasize that again, if he is living there and needs a couple more days to get his stuff out or the girlfriend or whatever, make sure that they have access to it. You don’t want to make anybody homeless necessarily. If you’re not sure what to do in that situation or he just won’t leave, he really just won’t leave then seriously get a lawyer to help you out because each state is different. California is particularly in favor of tenants even though this is not a tenant situation.

I think you can be strong and say “This is my personal residence and you can’t lock me out. You have no tenants rights.” Call up the utility companies and tell them “Listen you wrongfully changed the name of the account and I need you to change it back. I’m the owner you can check the property tax record to make sure if you need to. I’m not liable for those times where you messed up, you changed it to some random hijacker.” Anyway, that’s what I would do. If it still gets really bad and the police don’t help you, they don’t emphasize that they can do anything in this situation or they won’t even escort you and the tenant won’t leave, then your only option might be to file an eviction case or an unlawful detainer case in your local courthouse.

That’s tricky because I’ve seen some judges dismiss a case because there was no landlord/tenant relationship and just say “This isn’t an eviction matter.” And then it’s like what do you do next? But sometimes they will, they’ll address the situation. Hopefully it doesn’t go that far, hopefully the tenant will just be a little scared of you when you put down the hammer. If you bring a police officer with you maybe that will be the end of it. Good luck to you. I hope that helps. Again, this is not legal advice, this is just how I would handle it. If you have any actual damages, like your hotel costs from the time where you were locked out or anything else, you could sue him in small claims court for that. To be honest, I would probably do that just because I was pissed because I didn’t think that’s how friends should treat each other. Good luck to you. I hope your mom gets better. Thanks.

About Lucas Hall

Lucas is the Chief Landlordologist at Cozy. He has been a successful landlord for over 10 years, with dozens of happy tenants and a profitable income property portfolio.
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