The Man With the $16 House

A house in the 'burbs, a swimming pool and something for nothing: Squatter Ken Robinson's living the dream..

The Man With the $16 House
Danny Fulgencio

In late July, the untended, bean-shaped swimming pool at Ken Robinson's Flower Mound home — that is, the house in which he lives — was a stew pot of viscous green slime. On a stifling midsummer evening, when he walked out the back door to vacuum one of many layers of filth, the water level was nearly at the lip of the concrete. If someone were to jump in, algae-filled slop would have spilled onto the patio. He ran to the hose spigot at the side of the house and cut off the water. This was his first time caring for a pool; he had a lot to learn.

As Robinson prepared to clean, a young couple knocked on the fence's weathered gate. They had driven more than an hour to see him after watching him on a Channel 8 news report a week earlier. His story had since gone viral: "A $330,000 home for $16? This is not a normal process," read Channel 8's headline. "How to Get a McMansion for $16" ABC News' said. Soon, Robinson was opening fan mail from as far away as China and Thailand.

The week after Robinson moved into the tan-sided home with a faux stone entrance and maroon shutters, he was soaring, an Internet hero a few levels shy of Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who last summer cracked a beer and left work on a plane's emergency slide. For $16, Robinson had filed paperwork with Denton County staking his claim to the abandoned home through an obscure Texas law called adverse possession. Ever since, curious visitors, beginner real estate investors and people who want an ultra-cheap home to fulfill their version of the American Dream have been knocking on his door for advice and a handshake. Robinson estimates he hosted two visitors and received two letters from fans daily for weeks after the news broke.

Ken Robinson stands in the well-kept yard of the Flower Mound home he’s trying to claim as his own by using an obscure Texas law called adverse possession.
Ken Robinson stands in the well-kept yard of the Flower Mound home he’s trying to claim as his own by using an obscure Texas law called adverse possession.
Robinson’s new neighbors may not like it, but he paid $16 to lay claim to his new home, and he plans to stay.
Danny Fulgencio
Robinson’s new neighbors may not like it, but he paid $16 to lay claim to his new home, and he plans to stay.

Fifty years old, dark-skinned and sporting a shaved head and black, neat goatee flecked with gray, Robinson moved into the house in mid-June. On the evening he was cleaning, the plywood pool covering the city had installed sat beside shriveled shrubs. The property hadn't been maintained in a long time, and with a pool, landscaping and a grassy swath large enough to play horseshoes, getting the yard in order was a big job but one Robinson enjoyed.

The couple standing poolside wanted to know more about adverse possession. (See "Don't Try This at Home," page 16.) Robinson, who says he is a minister of Christ, finds himself in a real-estate pulpit with every visitor.

"This is an outside, outside the box transaction," Robinson said, holding the white pole of the vacuum.

The incredulous girl listened with her hands on the hips of her black and purple dress. "So, what did you tell your neighbors and all them?" she asked. "Like, on the news, they're like, 'Oh, well he should have to buy a house like all the rest of us.'"

"I told them I have as much right to this house as you have to yours. I said, 'You know, you wouldn't want me to come to your house and tell you you've got to get out,'" Robinson replied. "This is my domicile, this is where I live. ... This is my intent, to be the owner of record. ... If that's not your intent — to go in and improve upon the property — leave it alone. Otherwise you'll probably end up locked up."

The young couple wondered if they could use adverse possession to take ownership of her mother's home, which she abandoned when she left the country. Her stepfather was still on the deed, though he would negotiate.

Adverse possession cannot be used when there is any agreement with an owner, Robinson instructed. "You are in a conflict of interest by being related. That's not adverse possession," he said. "It's hostile, almost like a hostile takeover. It's open and notorious ... it's got to be noted."

The young man, who was shifty and nervous and kept backtracking as he talked, spoke up, "I was looking to move in and stay."

The conversation continued for about a half hour until Robinson asked, "So when are y'all going to pay your deposit?" He was offering a two-day comprehensive real estate seminar for $10,000.

"Monday," the young man said.

Before they left, Robinson gave them a tour to debunk news reports that he was camping in the living room without water or electricity. The digital clock on the oven lit green; the sparsely furnished living room contained a maroon leather recliner and a wooden easel for painting. Robinson led them around the corner from the living room to the first-floor master bedroom, where he sleeps on a king-size Posturepedic bed — alone, he told his guests. Two divorces and a move from Tennessee to Texas by way of California have left him more visits from curious strangers than from friends and family.

"Are you sure you don't have anyone sleeping in that bed too? Because I've never seen men roll their towels," the girl said, strolling past the basket of neatly folded towels on the bathroom floor. Robinson explained that his mother, who raised four boys to care for themselves, and a stint in the Marine Corps made him a neurotically tidy early riser. He intended for the towels to look like a rose, though a rose with mismatched petals — blue, green and beige. Robinson brought the beige towels, but the colored ones and the pink one hanging near the sink belonged to the home's previous owner.

MORE: Don't Try This at Home: On the Subject of Adverse Possession
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