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Exercising his squatter's rights

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If you haven’t caught the news stories about Flower Mound’s “squatter,” Kenneth Robinson, he used a legal loophole known as, “adverse possession,” to settle into an abandoned $330,000 home on Waterford Drive on June 17th, after paying only a $16 court filing fee.

Many neighbors may have thought that it could be the beginning of a march of vagrants invading the neighborhood.

I didn’t know what to expect when I recently dropped by, unexpected and uninvited.  Admittedly, the term squatter conjured up images of a ragged individual, right out of a box car, cooking a can of beans in the middle of the living room floor, amidst 110 degree temperatures.  After all, stories were circulating that Mr. Robinson, 50, had no utilities connected and was leading a threadbare existence without furniture.

As I approached, I noticed that the lawn looked pretty similar to most, not the Augusta greens, perhaps, but this summer, that would have stood out more.  There were no signs of overgrown weeds or the look of abandoned property.

Mr. Robinson answered the door quickly and personably.  After asking to see some identification, he welcomed me into “his” home.  Whereas I’d heard that it was barren, I quickly found myself being led past a pool table I envied, to a kitchen table to sit and discuss the ongoing situation.  The lights were on, the temperature was comfortable, and Mr. Robinson was wearing a suit. 

Mr. Robinson dove right in, “The way this came about, was that I was heading to Highland Village where I was going to mentor a few people about real estate investing, when I saw this property with high grass growing up around it.”

He explained that he’d been looking at three properties, all told.  “I couldn’t find the actual owner of this one.  I couldn’t even find the mortgage company.  I was doing research online, when I stumbled upon adverse possession.  But, I didn’t jump in.  I spent almost 48 straight hours reading legal fine print.”

Yes, but some neighbors have been a little upset about his deal and presence.  A less than thrilled David Hildreth, admits, “Lawyers said that Robinson has done the paperwork well, all t’s crossed and i’s dotted.  He’s done his research.”  But legalism doesn’t cover everything.  “What really needs to happen is for Governor Perry to look into closing off this loophole in the law.”

Nonetheless, it begs the question if those who buy up property at auction for unpaid tax money would get the same scrutiny, or is it just the ridiculously low figure paid that has citizens in an uproar.

“They called News 8 as well as the police,” Mr. Robinson explained.  “One night, four neighbors came to my house and said that I had to leave, but I told them I wasn’t going to.  When I offered to call the police myself, they encouraged me to do so.  The police came right out, asked me to step back inside and the men to leave.”

Mr. Robinson said that he hasn’t encountered any confrontational problems since: no bricks through the window, no torch bearing vigilante groups.  He said that he intends to buy homeowners insurance and contribute to the Homeowners Association…but admits that he hasn’t actually done those things yet.  He does say that he’s had to pour some money into the swimming pool, which had fallen into disrepair after the previous owner’s abandonment.

What Mr. Robinson, a self-described real estate mentor and entrepreneur, really wanted to do was explain that what he’s succeeded in doing – using knowledge of the law to his advantage – is not as easy as it looks.  “People don’t know that they need to do a title search, or at least should do one, for protection.  I’d like people to know that I have a background in real estate.  When people pick up an abandoned property they don’t know what they’re getting.  In fact, I may have a roof problem that I’ll have to fix.”

Of course, if one has moved into a $330,000 home for $16, one would probably find the costs for roof, pool, and even foundation repairs a lot more affordable than the rest of us.

Meanwhile, Mr. Robinson showed me a collection of letters from around the country from attorneys and others, asking him to hold seminars, offer advice, or just to congratulate him.

Another neighbor and local businessman, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that he, himself, was angry at first, but admits, “I am a little jealous that he figured this deal out.  I’ll say that he has done an excellent job of taking care of the property, which had been neglected.  But, still, no one likes the way he went about it.”

Whether or not the ends justify the means, it would seem more financially advantageous to neighbors to have a next-door home and its lawn well manicured – even if by someone who got a far better deal than they – instead of an eyesore in the middle of the block.  In today’s economy, if you get a few abandoned, weed covered homes on one’s street, just watch what happens to the property values.

Even so, Mr. Hildreth expresses the feelings of many, “I’m concerned that with the current economy, this will be the wave of the future if the governor doesn’t address it. Robinson has relatives with similar deals in Carrollton and Southlake.” (As of this writing, Mr. Robinson had not responded to our phone or email inquiries about those two homes).

As for advice, Mr. Robinson warns future adverse possessors, the very legal definition of adverse possession requires four things:

1)    that one is open and people can see that you’re living there.
2)    that one is “notorious,”  meaning, here, that the paperwork has been filed and everything is known.
3)    that one is in “conflict,” indicating that the new resident is not working with the original owner, and
4)    intent to live on the property

Mr. Robinson stressed that people need to know the risk factors.  “I’ve had people drive here from Cedar Hill, Wylie, even Houston, to see what this is all about, often trying to get some help themselves.  I tell people to get legal advice before trying this.  Don’t go into it blindly.” 

He invited me to walk with him to pick up his mail, saying that there would probably be some request letter in the box.  Alas, there was only the same junk mail that I always get.

But I had the feeling that, in the long run, that’s exactly what Mr. Robinson wants: to be accepted as a regular part of the neighborhood, despite the way he blew into town. 

“I see Flower Mound as a wonderful place to live,” he commented.  Then, almost as an afterthought, alluding to both his own good fortune and his ability to spread his recently acquired knowledge, Mr. Robinson gave a nod to Luke 12:48, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.”

Notwithstanding any altruistic goals, Mr. Robinson may find that people cannot easily warm up to someone who hasn’t walked in their mortgage paying shoes.  As Mr. Hildreth explains, “We moved here a decade ago.  We’ve had to deal with job losses and significantly lesser incomes, while trying to make our payments.  It’s frustrating.  Honestly, I don’t like what he’s done, morally or ethically.”

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