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'There's somebody in the house' | Squatters move into empty homes amid Sacramento's booming housing market

After leaving the house empty for two weeks as they prepared to move from Daly City, the Hodge family walked into their new home and found people living there.

SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Calif. — Imagine moving into a home and realizing someone is already living there.

That's what happened to the Hodge Family after they battled Sacramento's competitive real estate market and finally got the keys to their newly renovated home in south Sacramento.

Unfortunately, their situation with squatters is not uncommon.

"Squatters will find homes that are empty and they will move into it," tenant and landlord attorney Calvin Clements said.

According to Redfin, investment buyers bought 56.3% more homes in Sacramento in 2021 than in 2020, creating a lot of empty residences. Because of that, people shopping for a home or looking to rent should be aware of squatters.

"We went after it," Barry Hodge said. "Upped our bid and everything... and we got it."

The Hodge family worked hard to purchase a home in south Sacramento. They pinched their pennies and were outbid a number of times before finally being able to write their name on the dotted line as homeowners.

"Once we bought the house, we were so excited," said Anderson Nascimento, Barry's son who plans to live in the home with his girlfriend. "It was like the first house we ever bought."

But after leaving the house empty for two weeks as they prepared for their move from Daly City, they walked into the new home and found oranges on the floor and smelled burning plastic.

"And then I was like, 'Oh... there's somebody in the house,'" Nascimento recalled.

They called the Sacramento police and waited out front. As they stood on the sidewalk, they could see a figure standing in the doorway of their new home.

"Just staring at us from the house," Nascimento said. "And all he did was just close the door. I'm just like, 'What is going on?'"

They estimate there were at least five squatters in the home for around a week. Squatters find empty homes, like the Hodge's, in a variety of ways.

While he didn't want to provide a "how-to" for squatters, Clements thought it was important for homeowners and renters alike to know the dangers of them and how they operate.

"They might see a for-rent sign on the house," Clements said. "Others simply peruse the ads looking for foreclosure auctions."

And once they're in, the real problems begin.

"At that point, the owner has an issue," Clements said.

An issue Clements is far too familiar with as he has helped homeowners navigate this tricky situation for decades.

"I had one case recently (that) took over a year to get these individuals out of the home," Clements said.

The Hodge family's case was the best of a worst-case scenario because the squatters were removed by Sacramento police. But not without a fight.

"They started telling the police it was their house," Hodge said.

"He was like, 'I have my own rights! I can stay in the house,'" Nascimento said. "The cop was just not having it with him."

It's a common claim squatters make.

"The occupants may claim they live there. They may have a phony lease that they show and at that point, it becomes what the officers will call a civil problem," Clements said. "Meaning, you, the landlord need to handle that yourself."

To handle it, you or an attorney have to serve a written notice and evict them through the court, often a two-month process. Some crafty squatters file delaying motions with the court to prolong the process. 

"And then if the inhabitants know what they're doing they can draw that process out for three months, six months or longer," Clements said.

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Realty Roundup Property Manager Jim Miller has 2,000-plus properties from Stockton to Roseville. He said with the COVID pandemic, they only did virtual tours and took down for-rent signs, helping prevent squatters.

"We now just do virtual tours... we don't do signage anymore," Miller said. "So, you're not seeing, if you will, an abandoned house."

But the other thing he has experienced is when a squatter poses as the landlord, renting out an empty home and collecting deposits.

"I've experienced a couple myself where the homes were rented illegally," Miller said. "Where there had been deposits and rents taken, down payments, and people show up with the moving van to start moving in... and they can't get in."

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Miller said he's seen some cases where defrauded tenants have gotten into the apartment or home they believe to be theirs, which causes an even bigger problem as the property managers, like Miller, now have to go through a lengthy legal process to get those renters out lawfully.

Either way, the fake landlord has vanished.

"I feel sorry for them because normally they can't find who they rented the home from," Miller said.

For squatters who move into the home themselves, it often leads to damage.

"Even when you get the property back, you're now faced with tens of thousands of dollars of property damage," Clements said.

It's something Nascimento and Hodge dealt with. They found a mess of food, feces, vomit and a huge amount of clothes in multiple rooms, including a picked apart bike being burned in the fireplace, the cause of the plastic smell the family first encountered when entering the home.

After the squatters were removed by police, being charged with trespassing, the Hodge family were left to clean and fix everything. They immediately went to Home Depot and spent over 16 hours cleaning the home. 

The family also had to repair:

  • multiple broken windows
  • a melted down part of their stove as the burner was left on 
  • destroyed shower handles 
  • a flooded dishwasher

The squatters also left behind some alarming items like knives and drugs, as well legal paperwork outlining their rights.

"These people are not stupid. They know what they're doing," Hodge said. "We have a lot of compassion (for the homeless). But when it's in your face and it's happening to you in the moment, it's difficult to handle."

RELATED: Audit: California too slow in offering affordable housing

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