The Man With the $16 House
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.
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.
The tour snaked through the bare light-filled upstairs of the two-story house with crown moldings, a fireplace and granite countertops, then down to the room just inside the front door. Robinson leaned against a pool table, another item abandoned by the home's previous inhabitants.
"Do you ever, at times, wish you hadn't done this?" the young woman asked.
"I don't think like that," he said.
His answers to the strangers' questions took a more emotional, preacher-like turn. "Who's here today? Who's here since I've been here?" Robinson asked. The people who had invited him to Flower Mound after his second divorce — his roommates since he moved to the suburb about a year and a half ago — had abandoned him. Fellow real-estate investors, they were supposed to move into this home with him, but when the police showed up at his neighbors' request, they left him as though he was doing something wrong.
"You are the CEO of your life," Robinson told his company. "Where you are today is a direct reflection of your decisions — how you governed your life. If you don't like what's going on, have a board meeting as soon as possible." The girl giggled, but Robinson, dead serious, appeared not to notice.
A short time later, reiterating that they must be careful with their investment decisions, Robinson led them out the door.
They never returned with the deposit.
Less than 15 minutes after the couple left, another knock at the door. This time, it was a man who had stopped by with his wife just before the couple arrived. He had to leave earlier but returned just before 9 p.m. to continue their conversation.
His family had battled foreclosure for five years, and he told Robinson that despite their filing for bankruptcy, his mortgage holder foreclosed on their property and locked them out. He, his wife and their three children were living in a hotel and figured they might be able to adversely possess their own home. From all they had seen in the news, Robinson made it look easy.
"I had to come over and meet you," the man told Robinson. "I came one time, and you weren't here. ... I'm bold like that. ... I knew that we would get along ... didn't care if you were white, black, whatever. Then, I seen your clip, and [you] just happened to be mocha persuasion." He and Robinson laughed, and the man continued, "You're like Superman. You are my mentor."
The visitor had seen Robinson's neighbors complaining on the news about his being here. He couldn't understand why; Robinson's maintenance improved everyone's home values. "I'm just going to be straight with you," the man said. "If I was going to say anything, I would say it was all racially motivated. ... If it had been a white man coming up and doing this, I think there would have been problems, don't get me wrong, but I don't think it would have been like this."
"Deep down, that's what it is," Robinson said, "but I'm going to stay as far away from that as possible. Know why? Because all it's going to do is fuel a fire that's not necessary."
Robinson took a look at the document his guest brought and bottom-lined the situation immediately. The man was listed as a trustee on the home, and therefore could not adversely possess it. Adversely possessing a house is not as simple as it appeared in news stories, and he wants everyone who knocks at his door to know that. The home must be abandoned, and ideally, shouldn't be in foreclosure. If it's in foreclosure, the lender's interest in the home invites more risk and scrutiny. Whoever moves in will have to pay for improvements and taxes, and expenses run much higher than $16.
Though Robinson's skeptical of his visitors' and reporters' agendas, he greets each uninvited door-knocker with a wide welcoming smile. But he's maddeningly vague in conversation. Asked about his upbringing in Memphis, Tennessee, he said, "I came up at that time in what would have been considered middle class. My mother worked for a hospital, my father worked for the government." Pressed further, he responded, "My mother was a nurse. My father worked for the government." As for what Dad did for the government, Robinson said once again, "He worked for the government, OK?" Then finally, "He worked on the river, like dredging and all that good stuff. I believe that's what it was."
Growing up, he describes himself as a "vigilante type," much like his neighbors now. He would keep an eye out for his own family and neighborhood. He lived in the "foot-homes," or the projects, until he was 5 or 6, then moved into a mostly black neighborhood, where racism, at that time, was a greater threat than gangs.
Running drills on the stairs during junior high track practice, he met his future first wife when he helped her after she fell and twisted her ankle. They married when he was 20, just before he left to serve for two and a half years in the Marine Corps, and divorced five years later. He married again, divorcing after 16 years. He has six children, three from each marriage, and proudly displays photos of his twin baby grandsons on a living room shelf.
For almost his entire adult life, Robinson says, he's been doing "out of the box" real estate deals. As for how many, he said, characteristically vaguely, "I've done plenty ... a whole lot." He said he doesn't keep track. "Some people keep a record of every little thing that they do ... life is what it is."
A close friend of Robinson for more 15 years, A.J. Lamar, laughs at the attention Robinson has received for moving to Waterford Drive. "Ken was always going out on those limbs like that," he said. For as long as he's known Robinson, he's been negotiating strange real estate deals and attending investing classes taught by the likes of motivational speaker Zig Ziglar.
Lamar also invests in foreclosure deals, but nothing like Robinson. "I admire him for trying and going at it, and I think he's crazy to keep going," Lamar said, describing his friend as a generous "people person" and a tenacious house-hunter who takes risks, yes, but would never embark on an illegal deal. "He's not a crook," he said. It's just business.
To Robinson's neighbors, it's more personal than that.
"So, I guess you're coming to talk about the man down the street," Leigh Lowrie, who lives a short walk down Waterford Drive and tipped Channel 8 to the story, said as she invited me inside her home. As her son played in the living room, she excused herself to take a phone call from her husband. "I have to put my hamburger order in," she said, rolling her eyes in sarcasm. "It's five for five, Sonic. We have six kids. ... Welcome to life in suburbia." Then, she walked into a quieter, more comfortable sitting area adjacent to the family's pool table to discuss Robinson, who's roiled Waterford Drive's suburban calm.
Flower Mound police visited Robinson at a neighbor's request six days after he moved in. Officers asked him to leave because they could not determine who had legal ownership of the property. They took his key, only to return it when Robinson produced his affidavit of adverse possession, a single sheet of paper notifying "any and all interested parties" that he has taken possession of the property, his "personal dwelling." "I am claiming ownership of the above described property peaceably," the document concludes.
Once he turned it over to police, "it was determined at this point there were no criminal law violations and that this issue was a civil matter and no action on the part of the police department was warranted," Captain Kurt Labhart of the Flower Mound Police Department stated in an email.
With that, there wasn't much Lowrie and other neighbors could do. To boot Robinson from the house, either the owner or the bank holding the mortgage would need to sue. Neighbors say their anger has nothing to do with Robinson as a person; what he's done seems like cheating, and the fact that the law may allow him to get away with it angers them.
Lowrie does have one objection about Robinson, whom she has never met and hopes not to. He told one neighbor that he entered the home through a broken window; he told Channel 8 reporter Casey Norton that he found a key while mowing the grass; and he told the Observer he called a locksmith to change the locks after he submitted his affidavit of adverse possession to the county.
Lowrie insists she and her husband aren't racists, as has been suggested by bloggers. They have another black neighbor; their children play together; and they are all part of the same community — a community of homeowners.
"In reality, the guy broke into the house," said Lowrie's husband, Bryan, when he returned with the family's dinner. "We all go through the same process. We're homeowners; he's not."
Leigh said Robinson took the law of adverse possession out of context, as it was originally intended for rural property line disputes. "Then it becomes a loophole," her husband said.
"Somebody, somewhere has to pay the bill, and somebody's getting burned," he said. "Beat the man, beat the man ... it's our tax dollars, for God's sake."
"We are the man," Leigh added.
When Kathy Abraski moved in across the street less than two years ago, Leigh Lowrie brought her a fruit tart. Robinson hasn't received a single pastry from his neighbors.
"'Shocking' would be the first thing that comes to mind," Abraski said, standing in her foyer, taking a break from painting her child's bedroom. "I think it's wrong, for one thing, as a homeowner, as an American. We work hard for what we get, not easy, not finding the back roads or finding gray areas of things to get stuff. ... That's very frustrating to know that there's something legally out there that he's able to do that."
She's heard Robinson's offering seminars to teach people how to find homes under similar circumstances, and she's appalled. "Somebody always reaps the benefits of somebody's downfall. ... All I have to say is if he plans on staying for a while, you know what, he will never be welcome in the neighborhood."
No one the Observer spoke to knew the person who previously lived in the house on Waterford Drive. Chris Custard, a construction superintendent and board member of the Waterford Park Estates Homeowners Association, can't even remember the name of the owner of record. According to Denton County records, it's William P. Ferguson, and his complete absence is what allows Robinson, the block's hero or villain, depending who's judging, to live there. (The Observer tracked Ferguson to the Houston area, but was unable to contact him.)
"Ken, I guess that's his name, who the hell knows?" Custard said. "I don't have a problem with him. I have a problem with what he's doing."
Custard and three other neighborhood men — the "four horsemen," Robinson calls them — knocked on his door on Wednesday, June 29, just after dinnertime. The group was very "polite and calm," according to a police report. "They just wanted Mr. Robinson to leave."
Robinson answered the door politely, Custard said. He offered to explain to the men about what he had done. They weren't interested in an explanation, Robinson recalls.
"Look fellas," Robinson remembers telling his neighbors, "I'll tell you what; this is not gonna go anywhere. So, you've got three choices: You can leave now, stand there until you get tired 'cause you're not bothering me, or I can call the police."
He called the police for their second visit, and three cruisers pulled up. Four officers came face-to-face with the four neighbors and explained that Robinson had filed an affidavit of adverse possession. At that point, the group walked away. "Once again, it's a civil issue," Captain Labhart said.
"Oh God, that's what they always say," said Dallas real estate lawyer Frank McLain, who questions the legal sway of the affidavit of adverse possession. "That has no bearing in my view," he said. "The adverse possession affidavit obviously is something that's just concocted or composed by the person taking possession of the property. That does not give him any kind of special right to possess the property." Even so, he said, "It's all what you can get away with sometimes."
McLain said Robinson has no right to sell the home or its contents. "That's theft," he said. Even McLain has tried unsuccessfully to find the owner of the property. When he saw the news, he began researching the property as a possible investment. "If you could find the true owner, you could buy his interest," McLain said.
The listed mortgage lender, Accredited Home Lenders, filed for bankruptcy in May 2009, and Bank of America is the current mortgage holder. "He's got a conflation of good things for him happening," McLain said of Robinson. The owner is nowhere to be found, the original mortgage company no longer holds the loan, and Bank of America is "bogged down" with faulty foreclosure documentation, part of the fall-out of the country's foreclosure crisis.
Robinson acknowledges that there is still a risk. "This thing is not over; it's still a process," he said. Like he's done for more than 20 years, Robinson supplements his real estate deals with side jobs to keep his income steady. A display of boxes and bottles of dietary supplements and energy drinks sits on the built-in bookshelf in his living room. He earns commissions by selling the items for a referral marketing company.
He recently interviewed with Walmart for a night-shift stocking job. "The interview process was funny. I didn't know who was interviewing who. I probably won't get hired. I tried to tone it down. I tried to make myself marketable. Didn't happen," he said. Though the additional income would be nice, he said he doesn't need it.
He offered me a drink and, ever the salesman, handed me a water bottle and a black and green packet of energy drink mix. "Crave is a natural version of energy drink — has 1 gram of sugar, 9 calories, gives you a better buzz, no headaches, no crashing," he told me. We shook the powder in our water bottles until they were full of a sweet neon-green solution. The first time he drank it, he said, he pressed about 75 shirts — all of them perfectly ironed. For emphasis, he led me to his walk-in closet, where neatly hung shirts lined a rack the length of his pool vacuum pole. A pink robe hung opposite the shirts seems out of place. "That was here," he clarified.
Among the row of his sneakers and dress shoes was a pair of oversized, shiny red clown shoes. Like the towels and the robe, they weren't his. "But guess what — they fit," he said, zipping up the backs and shifting from one foot to the other. Then, he opened a bathroom drawer, revealing over-the-counter pills and sanitary pads, also not his. And then the hall closet — a woman's tweed jacket and a dress ... no, it was curtains. Robinson unfurled the neatly folded maroon window coverings and held them up near his bedroom windows. Yes, looked like they would work perfectly.
For now, everything seems to have turned out swimmingly — a nearly perfect home on a pristine street, complete with curtains, clown shoes and a pool table — but the end of the story on Waterford Drive might not come for years. The owner could surface and sue him to leave the property or the bank could foreclose on the home and do the same. Or he may ride out the statute of limitations for adverse possession until he goes to court to obtain the title to the home. He would prefer to negotiate with the owner quickly, ending this period of adverse possession and giving Robinson the option to either stay or sell.
To clarify the risks and rewards of this process — and because he can't pass a business opportunity — he plans to host seminars and write a book. So far, though, Robinson hasn't made any money from staking his claim.
"The seminars that I'll be doing will be 90 percent of the risk factor," he said, concerned that people will oversimplify the process, misuse the law and end up in jail. People keep knocking on his door with lofty ideas and flawed documentation. "The way it's been reported, people are going to end up in trouble because they think they can just file a piece of paperwork," he said.
He invited me on a truncated adverse possession seminar, a tour around his neighborhood and a few miles beyond. He found the Waterford Drive house while scouring the area with another group of investors. He first spotted tall grass and upon closer inspection realized no one was living there. He had planned on buying the property on a short sale or on a tax lien sale, but with no owner to be found and no foreclosure on record, the house was a perfect candidate for adverse possession and not much else.
He hopped in the passenger seat and pointed me down the street. We passed brick home after brick home, all seemingly cut from the same mold. Less than two minutes into the drive, we arrived at an abandoned property, a one-story brick home on a corner lot with a fenced yard. The immediately visible grass was trimmed, though more brown than green, but the grass was waist high in the backyard. It had to be pushed aside to get a peek through the home's windows. The living room and breakfast nook were intact, though filthy.
This house would need a lot of work before someone could reasonably make it their home. Robinson said he doesn't care if it's the perfect candidate for adverse possession, he would never take on a project like this; the expense wouldn't be worth it.
We continued driving without much direction, the way Robinson typically finds properties. He has a simple principle: "Wherever there's one, there's another."
We came upon another he had been keeping track of. He gave the home's stats, according to his research — it's still in the owner's name, and the bank hasn't foreclosed, but it's not yet a candidate for adverse possession because it hasn't been vacant for very long.
The home was a beauty — entirely red brick with a castle-like stone structure at the entrance. If Rapunzle lived in suburbia, she'd live here. "Somebody's been to this house," Robinson said. "Look at that window right there." The garage window was cracked, ever so slightly, to allow easy entrance and exit. Robinson noted that the water was still on because the hose worked, but the exterior electrical wires were cut. A stack of papers on the front porch, a tell-tale sign of abandonment, was pushed to the side, out of view. Someone still had interest in this property, if only slightly.
The tour carried on. "Look here, look here," Robinson called in a voice giddy enough for a Disney commercial. It was a swath of dead grass, an empty lot — a decoy, as far as he was concerned, nothing more. Possessed by the hunt, he laughed at his own doggedness.
The mission felt slightly twisted, as though we were wishing people out of their perfectly lovely homes. Yet, driving through what looks like the set of Desperate Housewives, that's not how Robinson saw it. "They're already gone, so it's not like you're wishing the worst on anyone," he said. "They're already gone."
He pointed out a few more homes that he would mark on his "watch list," his mental tabulation of houses that are falling into disrepair, perhaps on the verge of abandonment or foreclosure. While he can't adversely possess another property since the law requires him to occupy the Waterford Drive house, he's still looking for investment homes.
Two months after filing his adverse possession document, Robinson walked over the perfectly linear vacuum marks on his beige living room carpet, over his spotless kitchen tile and out the back door to the pool, where he had transformed the green abyss. It was pristine, crisp and blue — could easily appear on a postcard: "Welcome to Sunny Flower Mound, Home of Opportunity."
He had two friends visiting, a woman he knew from living in California and another woman he knew from his network marketing company. "I've just made it entertaining when people come," he said. "I make the best of it." The stream of visitors has worn on him, but now the pool is his serenity.
Two floats bobbed in the water, a mesh lounge that was left behind and a white blow-up recliner bought by Robinson. "That's good dippin' right there," he said, admiring his handiwork. He walked into the pool and leaned back against the edge, resting his arms on the concrete, sharing battle stories of adverse possession.
There was the woman who knocked on his door and asked his advice about taking a $2.3 million monstrosity. He told her she better see an attorney. Then there was the photo in which the photographer got him to literally squat in front of the property — tastefully done, but he got a few mocking phone calls. Ideally, someone should be discreet about this process, he said, but that option escaped him as soon as neighbors called the police — and the media.
Though the place has felt like home since the day he moved in, Robinson said, his comfort level would rise if he could talk to the owner. "It's kind of intriguing to see what will happen."
The Observer contacted Bank of America to check on the status of the home, and received a one-sentence statement in response. "We are proceeding with the foreclosure process, and we anticipate it will be completed in the next two months." Even so, negotiation is possible and nothing is certain. "We'll just have to see," Robinson said. "Nobody knows what will happen."
If he's forced to leave, neighbors speculate that he will gut the place of the stainless steel appliances and the pool table. "I'm not for sure exactly what I'm going to do at this point," he said. "All of my belongings, I'm going to take when I leave. It's really no one else's business." He won't say exactly what qualifies as "his belongings." The public scrutiny is wearing on him, he said. "I think I've been disrupted enough. I think I've shared more than enough."