Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Latin American Land Grabs from Absentee Owners

Squatter housing in Mexico

When performing market research in Latin America, I heavily consult broker web sites, some of which require me to identify myself and provide contact information.

As a result, I find my e-mail inbox filled each day with “Retire in Paradise” promotions, written with the same tired old marketing vernacular, frequent underlining, bolding and exclamation marks!!!, used to also peddle miracle weight loss or genital enlargement pills.

Included are elated testimonials from retirees living like kings on $800 per month, describing cheap, delicious local food, friendly locals and $10 visits to U.S.-trained doctors. There are no traffic jams, but one still has to drive slowly in order to avoid hitting one of the many unicorns jumping over rainbows. Then there is the exhortation to buy now, before prices go up, because Latin America is running out of land, and the Baby Boomers just started hitting age 65 last year.

So you make up your mind to buy a foreign property now for when you retire in 5 years. You go down there, find some run-down property or vacant land advertised at a bargain price, hire a local attorney to verify clear title, pay the money and then leave. Everything is OK, right?

What sometimes happens is that the absentee owner arrives five years later to find squatters living on the property. When you call the police to have the squatters removed from the property you rightfully own, you find out that squatters often have occupancy rights under various “adverse possession” or "prescriptive easement" laws meant to protect landless campesinos from homelessness and starvation.

Even the United States has adverse possession and prescriptive easement laws, which recently became problematic in several states, such as Colorado, Florida and Texas, where squatters have seized unoccupied homes and transfered title to themselves, including a case in which the owner was absent only because he was being treated for cancer in Houston, 250 miles away. "Adverse possession" is different than "prescriptive easement" in that it extinguishes title for the former owner,
and in most U.S. cases, the title has been transferred illegally, as the minimum period of occupancy required in any state is 7 years. That's somewhat irrelevant, though, in removing squatters, as even American state laws protect squatters' rights until the matter has been adjudicated.

This squatter problem may be a somewhat recent problem in Latin America, which was largely ruled by heartless fascist dictatorships 50 years ago, but has recently been experiencing a democratic renaissance. Democracies give poor people a voice, effecting legislation sympathetic to their interests, including adverse possession laws.

If taken to a court of law, who would be the more sympathetic party in front of a jury or a judge -- the barefoot campesino who just wants a place to raise his chickens? -- or the rich gringo who didn’t even live on the property, letting the space just go wasted?

On the other hand, adverse possession can sometimes be a scam organized by a wealthy land grabber. Consider the case of Sheldon Haseltine, an absentee UK investor with prime land next to Costa Rica’s finest marina. He found squatters on his land in 1998 and tried to have them legally removed. He later found a billboard advertising a Wyndham hotel to be built on his site. He found out that the campesinos had been paid to occupy his site by another wealthy landowner and even found a copy of the cancelled check to the campesinos, in the amount of 100 million colones (about $200,000). His litigation has now lasted 14 years.

How could adverse possession be avoided?

1. Buy in an already-gated community (not accepting the promise that it will be gated some day).
2. Try to get some type of title insurance to protect against adverse possession (not sure if this exists). Title insurers, please comment.
3. Buy only when ready to move in.
4. Do not necessarily believe that prices will be increasing in the near future. In most countries I visit, property prices have been decreasing. There may still be opportunities available at the time when you are ready to occupy or develop your foreign property.
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