People are taking over luxury homes in Austin, and it's all legal.
Austin's real estate market is booming, with home prices going through the roof. Young professionals are moving to the city, finding upbeat jobs in Silicon Hills, and subsequently boosting demand for all kinds of accommodation.
Austin is still hot. Median home prices rose to $395,000, marking a 22% increase since February last year. Realtors expect the uptrend to continue. Homeowners might see prices climb as much as an additional 12% over the next 12 months.
Even the pandemic couldn't stop Austin's awakening. Realtors sold record-smashing 40,125 homes in 2020, with a positive outlook for this year too.
With such a high influx of new arrivals, how long before Austin becomes unaffordable?
Buying property in Downtown Austin, Old West, and Zilker is already out of reach for the affluent Austinites. Buying a property in Old West could set you back a few million dollars, with median prices of just under $1 million.
With all this excitement, individuals are using the law to claim free property live rent-free.
Texas law protects squatters
If someone finds an abandoned property, they can potentially move in without paying rent. Squatters collect documents on the property. Pay the tax, and maintain the house for a set amount of time, and you have the legal right to call it your own.
Neighbors may flip on you, but who cares if you're living in a $900,000 house.
The adverse possession sounds simple in theory, but it's actually dangerous.
The law of Texas doesn't spell out the exact path to claiming free property, but the courts have established a sort of routine when it comes to these issues:
1. Occupancy has to be hostile (without permission)
2. Traspasser actually live on the property
3. Traspasser exclusively lives only in that property
4. Traspassers are don't hide the fact they live there
5. Traspasser resides continuously for the statutory period.
After ten years of uninterrupted residence, you can claim the property your own and then sell it for a nice profit. Even if the whole scheme fails, many squatters see the opportunity to live rent-free, saving tens of thousands of dollars in the process.
The law prohibits anyone from moving to the government-owned property, so it has to be civil and taxable real estate.
Law savvy squatters can solidify their position much earlier
If squatters establish a "color of title," they could potentially streamline this process. Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 16.024 allows Austin's trespassers to claim adverse possession after only three years.
The color of the title refers to land warrants, rights, and scripts. The trespasser can file for a change in the property's possession, claiming the previous owner deliberately gave the ownership title to the trespasser.
How often do squatters really get their hands on prime-time real estate?
Can you really live in Austin's Downtown, Silicon Hills, Zilker, and other affluent neighborhoods without paying rent or mortgage?
The data is inconclusive. Squatters are not big fans of media, law enforcement, or angry neighbors. We hear about these cases when individual stories hit national news and steer controversy among homeowners.
Neighbors are usually the first people to turn on squatters. People dislike the idea of someone cutting corners. Families paying high mortgages seem to be less likely to welcome squatters in their streets.
However, people successfully claim property every year. Texas' government offers an online guide, rights, and legal resources on how and in which cases to claim any abandoned property.
Adverse possession doesn't support breaking into prime-time real estate in Zilker or Old West, or any estate for that matter. Breaking into other homes of others can land you in prison.
The law is designed to prop up run-down houses and make them beneficial for the community. It's supposed to ensure that abandoned property doesn't become a public safety issue, as the squatter has to take care of and invest in structural maintenance.
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