How to avoid squatters in your vacant home

LONG BEACH, Calif. Michelle Mendoza says she was in disbelief when she found out a couple and a young child had moved into her vacant home on 68th Way in Long Beach.

Michelle and her husband moved out of the house about six months ago and had it listed with a local realtor.

Michelle showed us around her home where the squatters spent about two weeks before they were caught.

"They had a stove, a refrigerator -- I mean it was like it was their home," said Michelle.

When the squatters moved in, neighbors assumed the new family had bought or rented the home from the Mendozas.

"I didn't know they moved in illegally, but found out 'cause the house owners came to check on their house," said neighbor Benjamin Brown.

The Mendozas confronted the squatters, who told the "real" homeowners they were trespassing on "their" property. They distributed flyers to the neighbors warning them about the squatters. But when they called police, the matter got tricky.

When officers arrived, the squatters, identified as Morris and Lula Mae Phillips, at first produced a utility bill from Southern California Edison in Morris Phillips' name, which gave the impression it was their home.

Edison doesn't require proof of ownership or a rental agreement to turn on the power in vacant homes. So if someone calls, and their credit checks out, the utility will provide electricity in their name.

Since the investigating officers had no immediate proof if the home had been sold or rented, they couldn't evict the squatters.

"It's not fair. It's not right. Everyone has to pay their bills, pay their mortgage," said Michelle. "I pay mortgage. It's just not right they get to live for free."

After a detective from the Long Beach Police Department came out to the Mendozas' home, the Phillips admitted they were there illegally, and agreed to move out.

Hours later, the Mendozas took pictures of a truck picking up the squatters' furniture and belongings.

While the Mendozas got their home back, real estate attorney Steven Spierer says it could have taken months, even longer, had the squatters put up a fight.

"The first thing they can do is say to the police, 'I own this house,' or 'I live in this house as a tenant, I have a right to be here.' The police are going to look at that and say this is a civil matter, we're not going to decide who owns this house, and we're not going to make an arrest for trespass," said Spierer.

"Someone can steal your car, you can report it for grand theft auto and the police can get your vehicle back," said Richard Ortega, a neighbor. "But someone can walk in your house and steal your house and the police can't do anything."

The people who moved into the Mendozas' place might be considered professional squatters, because before they moved into that house, they squatted in a foreclosed home just a block a away. And they squatted in another house which is just two blocks away, and neighbors say they lived there for two months. You have to wonder if they found a new house to squat in.

Typically, squatters move into foreclosed homes or homes that have been vacant for a long time. Police say if your home will be unoccupied for a while, it's a good idea to alert the neighbors.

"Let the people around know that the home is vacant, nobody is supposed to be living in there and if someone does move in, that a contract has been made and that they have authorized them to go in," said Long Beach Police Officer Israel Ramirez.

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