There may be a good reason why a man 8 On Your Side met at a home in Hillsborough County didn't want to stick around, or explain how he helped 2 families move into a Coconut Drive house.
Terrence Smiley says the man he knows as Enchino Hernandez offered a deal on the house that was too good to pass up.
“He said he have a house. Go check it out. If you want it, we can do business” said Smiley.
Turns out, the guy dashing off in a hurry doesn't own the house, but Smiley says he offered to rent the house to Smiley for $500 a month.
The guy denies that. He claims he just charged smiley $190 for advice about a form available at the property appraiser's office and a little-known law called adverse possession.
Adverse possession allows someone to take ownership of abandoned property if they live on it and pay taxes on it for 7 years.
What's happening in the Tampa Bay area is very different.
An 8 On Your Side investigation found some people are turning the adverse possession law into a money-making scheme, taking control of vacant properties, and then renting them out.
Steven Bybel of Pasco County is serving 5 years in prison for fraud after he moved 31 families into homes he didn’t own, collected rent and filed adverse possession papers.
8 On Your Side visited house after house after house in Hillsborough County, all of them listed on adverse possession forms we obtained from the appraiser. Most are vacant.
But at a town home, Alice Fugate had a big surprise after she signed a lease with the real homeowner.
"We had squatters in here the day before we moved in,” said Fugate.
The new renters found other people's stuff inside the unit.
Two doors down, at another home on the adverse possession list, we found a cable TV installer waiting to do his job.
Stetson law Professor Darryl Wilson says adverse possession is a technically legal way to take over abandoned property, if the right steps are followed.
“They can stay there if nobody kicks them out,” Professor Wilson said. “You would think that the person that owns the property would come and police their property. The law helps those who help themselves."
But the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office takes a hard line on adverse possession.
“Where we draw the line is, breaking into somebody's home," said Detective Larry McKinnon. “It belongs to somebody so stay out of it. If you go inside, you break inside of it, we're gonna arrest you for burglary and theft."
The man 8 On Your Side found at Terrence Smiley’s home says he doesn't charge people rent, they just pay him for his adverse possession expertise.
After he drove away, he later agreed to talk again, but the phone number he gave is disconnected.
The Smileys in the Coconut Drive home could end up in the cold. Detective Larry McKinnon says the sheriff's office typically gives renters in adverse possession cases 30 days to move out.
Terrence Smiley isn’t happy about what may soon happen.
“It's just bull crap man. Really bull crap. You work hard for your money,” he said.
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