The property rights law of adverse possession is normally a dry topic, a chapter covered in law school to be forgotten immediately after final exams. This will not be the case for about 100 SMU law students who attended a Wednesday evening lecture by Ken Robinson, the Flower Mound man (and subject of an Observer cover story) who overtook a vacant suburban home for $16, the price of filing notice with Denton County.
Robinson is not a lawyer, but with a background in real estate and a penchant for unusual investments, he knows the law. He lectured with the charisma of a seasoned professor, first thanking everyone for having him, and even giving a hat-tip to Christopher Columbus, who used some version of adverse possession before the law even existed.
"One of these was not like the other," he said, explaining that the home where he now lives was unkempt compared to its perfectly manicured neighbors when he noticed it in the beginning of summer. He approached the property as an investment opportunity, figuring he might get a good deal if he could contact the owner. But he couldn't. He couldn't even track down information about the mortgage.
The home was apparently abandoned. Throughout his research, the only option he could find was adverse possession. So he filed notice with the county, moved in and fixed the place up to the trimmed and pruned standards met by his neighbors.
Soon, neighbors got wind of what had happened. Channel 8 showed up at his door, as did many other reporters; the Observer hung around on-and-off for about a month, and his home became a circus of curious visitors who hoped to follow his lead.
All along, he warned: adverse possession is not for everyone. It's not a simple investment opportunity; you must intend to make the home your permanent residence. It must not be owned by someone who still has interest in the property. This could, and does, get tricky.
It became tricky for several people in Tarrant County who overtook homes that were not properly suited for the law, Channel 8 reported recently. One man even moved into his neighbor's home when she went on vacation. Robinson's been warning against this since he moved into the home and did so again at SMU.
But if done right, he said, adverse possession saves homes from falling into disrepair and upholds property values. Plus, a person who adversely possessed a home must eventually prove to a judge that they should become the owner of record. Paying taxes and Home Owners Association fees, along with respecting the neighborhood and caring for the property, goes a long way.
The ongoing recession and faltering housing market make for odd situations allowing for opportunities like adverse possession, Robinson said. "We have an epidemic problem ... I think this process has become part of the solution."
"Well, I heard it's everywhere except Texas," joked Tony Seagroves, the second-year law student who initially reached out to Robinson and hosted Wednesday's question and answer session. Seagroves and a few other students were fascinated by his story in the context of what they were learning; they paid him a visit, then asked him to do the same to their class.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
After the lecture, Seagroves told Unfair Park that adverse possession is covered in law school as it applies to farmland, not densely populated neighborhoods. Robinson modernized the concept.
Asked whether Robinson's use of the law was questionable or genius, Seagroves said, "Genius. I absolutely think it's genius ... He exercised his rights within the law."
"What better way to hear about the issues than from someone who's actually dealing with them," added SMU property law professor Sarah Tran. "Usually it's lawyers, not someone who's dealing with the issue," she said of typical guest speakers. "I feel strongly that every one of my students will remember adverse possession."
After the lecture, Robinson insisted he doesn't understand why he's been receiving so much attention. He repeated the way he often describes his situation: "It's just a real estate transaction."