Saturday, February 11, 2012

No Habla

I don't know J very well, I have spoken with him only three or four times over the past twenty two years. The first time was in 1990, when I purchased the house that J grew up in, the house where I still live. The second was a few months ago, in my driveway when J dropped by to visit a neighbor.The third time that I spoke with J was last week, when he dropped by my neighbors house at a time when I happened to be over there.

J is in the construction business, much like his father before him. Due to the lack of building activity and the influx of cheap labor, J has had to modify his business over the years. J now is in the property re-hab business.

When a bank takes possession of a property, it is often in a distressed state. The bank may contract with someone like J, who will come in and make the property fit to occupy. Usually, this endeavor includes  paint, flooring, some fixtures and appliances and some landscape maintenance.

Though there are a lot of properties that need to be re-habbed, there are also a lot of contractors who provide this service. As the banks are already taking a pretty good hit on these projects, they don't want to put any more money into them than they have to. Thus, cost control is a leading factor in obtaining this kind of work. Profit margins on these jobs are not very large.

J was having an issue on one of his projects last week, it was bothersome enough for him to share it with us. It involved a property which required significant re-hab before it could be put on the market. J had done the usual stuff, plus some cabinetry repair and some electrical work, including replacing some wiring and all of the switches and receptacles. The flooring had been laid on Monday, finishing the project, with the exception of a stove which had to be ordered.

The stove arrived on Wednesday morning. J decided to install it that afternoon, then photographically document the finished project, so he could submit his invoice and collect his cash. When he arrived at the project, he was surprised to find cars in the driveway and signs that someone had decided to move in. His key no longer fit the front door and the gate to the rear yard was locked.

J knocked on the door and a woman answered. J inquired as to the purpose of the woman's presence inside the house. The reply was "no habla". Further one sided conversation produced no further statements from the woman, though some non-verbal communication indicated that the woman had no intention of leaving and was not fearful of J nor anyone else.

At some point, the woman produced a rental agreement (written in English) and pointed out the areas where it spelled out the specifics for renting the house. The woman still claimed "no habla".

J asked if he could enter the house to document his labors, the woman would not allow it. It was at this point that J realized that he was screwed. Even though J doesn't own the house, the likelihood of receiving the $14,000 owed to him for materials and labor is slim, at least until the squatters can removed from the house and his work documented.

By the time that is accomplished, everything done to the home will be destroyed and anything of any value will have been removed. Depending on J's relationship with the bank, he may have to start over and complete the project a second time before receiving any money. Regardless, it will be a long, long time - if ever, before J gets a dime out of this deal.

At the best, the current occupants of the house are victims as well and have been defrauded. At worst, they are part of  the scam and will enjoy many months in the house rent free. The woman's ability to point to the proper sections of the rental agreement despite a language barrier lead me to believe that they are scammers who have done this sort of thing before. Either way nobody is moving out anytime soon and J is going to have to eat that 14 grand for a while.

As there was a one day window between the completion of the flooring and his attempt to deliver the stove, J believes that they were watching the house and then pounced on it when the time was right. He was a little surprised at the sophistication of these squatters, he is used to dealing with transients occupying the homes. Transients usually just move on when challenged and never produce fraudulent rental agreements.

I have read about squatters using similar tactics. Some were just criminals looking to scam unwary renters, others were just looking for somewhere to stay rent free. There is even a group who advocates squatting in bank-owned  houses as a method of correcting perceived social injustice.

I doubt J cares which of these scenarious applies to the property that he has been working on. He just wants his 14 large.

Thanks for reading,


  1. Sic the ICE or the local po-po on them?

  2. Those people may be in the country legally, who knows. I'm not sure ICE gets involved with stuff like this unless it involves smugglers.

    With the cops, they may view it as a civil issue, even if a fraud is going on. Even if they respond and take paper, no one is getting booted from the property for a long time. It is my understanding that they must go through the full eviction process before being booted out.

    Yikes. Thanks for the comment.