My First Squatter Experience: How It Lead Me to Buy 100s of Squatter-occupied Homes in Detroit

by Nader Shariff

The intrusion of an unknown and potentially perilous squatter onto your property can leave you feeling as though your home has been taken over with no avenue for resolution. Allow me to share the story of my first encounter with a squatter, detailing how I navigated the situation and the insights gained. This encounter catalyzed my subsequent purchase of hundreds of squatter-occupied homes in Detroit, Michigan.

It started as a cool and calm Saturday morning in September 2020. I had just closed on a property in 48224, Detroit Michigan, the past Thursday and had contractors lined up to give me bids all weekend long. The final walkthrough before closing proved to be exactly what I expected. I did not anticipate throwing more than $15,000 into the rehab to get the property back in rental-grade shape. The intention was to fix it up and place a tenant in the property. At around 10:35 AM, I called one of my GCs, Kevin, and I asked what time he’d be heading to the property so I could meet him. We decided to meet at around noon. I finished up some work, and at around 11:30 AM I was ready to head out. Kevin decided to beat me to the punch as he was already at the property waiting for me. I got a call from him and he said to me “Nader, we got a problem.” As someone who has heard “we got a problem” for years, I didn’t panic and instead asked what was happening. He told me “You said this house was vacant right?” I said, “Yeah I just walked it a few days ago.” He proceeded to tell me “Well man, it ain’t vacant no more.” Now, I’ll admit I was quite irate when I heard this news. However, I know anger, violence, and combative behavior wouldn’t take me or anyone anywhere. I told Kevin I’d be right over, hopped in my car, and headed straight to the house.

While driving over there, my mind was racing, and I was trying to put a plan in place. I had fifteen minutes to come up with what exactly I was going to do once I got to the property and how I was going to handle this. I thought about calling the police, but I remembered that if I did that and the police decided not to aid me, I would have to go straight to court to start an eviction. Time was running out, and I had no idea what I was going to do. And then it hit me, I am a sales guy for crying out loud. I’ve been in sales since I was 18. Part of sales is just truly understanding the person and their needs/wants. So, what I realized was if I could just hear this person out and see exactly what their problem was, then perhaps I could offer them some help. At around 11:48, I arrived at the property and was greeted by Kevin standing outside just shaking his head. I told him to wait by the car and I would handle it. “Be careful bro, you don’t know what’s behind that door” said Kevin, as I began to approach the door. In my mind at that point, I had nothing to lose I was just starting in Detroit, and to me, Detroit HAD TO WORK. Failure was not an option, and I was already heavily invested (more on that in another post one day). I decided I was going to knock nicely at first, even though I was tempted to kick the whole door down. So, I knocked, and what I was greeted by shocked me.

A very young woman with a baby in her arms opened the door. Looking at her beautiful smile and her baby, my heart sank a bit. Here, I was thinking I would be greeted by some bad person who was trying to hijack my property, but instead, it was what appeared to be this sweet, innocent young woman. When I saw that, my mindset changed and I was no longer angry. Instead, I realized on the other side of that door is another human being who potentially needs help. So, it was up to me to find out what was going on.

We got to chatting, and she began to explain how she was homeless and had been struggling for many months. She had two kids with no place to go and no family to stay with, and she feared staying on the streets day in and day out with her kids. Now, I didn’t agree with what she did, and I also did not think the property was suitable for children. However, I wanted to learn about her situation and see what I could do to help. We sat down and spent an hour talking about her options and trying to find the best solution for her and her children. By the end, we agreed that I would pay for a room in a hotel that was nearby for one month if she could be out in a few hours. Yes, cash for keys to an extent. The only difference was instead of giving her the money, I decided to ensure she did use the funds towards a roof over her head. She agreed and became extremely thankful for actually trying to understand her situation instead of acting out of anger. At the end of the day, we did the right thing. It didn’t throw off my numbers, and I got my house back in a way sooner time frame than I would’ve going through an eviction process. So here’s what I learned in this process:

1. It won’t always be like the situation I explained, and sometimes if you catch a squatter soon enough in Detroit, the police will help you. Tread lightly as there are a lot of different characters you will run across. However, in the end, every squatter is still a human being. They feel, they cry, they laugh, and they all have stories. Understand their struggle, and you will understand why they are doing what they are doing. If you can help them, take action. It is the quickest way to resolve your issue, and you are also giving back to your community at the same time.

2. Cash for keys generally will be cheaper than an eviction, because even though the costs for an eviction attorney and bailiff in Detroit are generally low, the time it takes to go through the process, and the potential damage that could be caused to your property in the process, will generally exceed the amount you will give someone to just leave your property.

3. Squatter-occupied properties are by far some of the greatest deals you will ever get. If you have the liquidity to buy a home and in the worst case do an eviction, then you can find some great deals at ⅓ of the value or sometimes more because there are a lot of people who truly do not want to be bothered by the process of dealing with a squatter. This experience made me realize that most squatter-occupied homes are depicted as nightmares when a simple one-hour conversation could resolve the situation.

4. Do not go in with an aggressive approach. You just look silly, and you’ll probably end up arrested, like what happened in New York City the other month, and quite frankly, nothing positive will happen. If you are upset, which you are in the right to be, take a deep breath and do not go to the property until you’ve cooled off.

5. Do not go alone. Always have people with you. You never know who’s behind that door.

6. To avoid dealing with squatters, try to board up your property with the DAWGS system. It will eliminate the headache of any illegal break-ins or entry.

100s of houses that I’ve bought with non-payers and squatters later, I can honestly say it is not easy, but it is worth it. In the end, it is not always about making money and finding a good deal, but also about contributing to your local community. While not every squatter I have encountered has been the friendliest, I would say more often than not they have been receptive to being helped out of the situation they are in. It feels good to not only help the property owner you’ve purchased the property from get out of a headache but also the occupant in the property who needs help getting back on their feet.

As for the woman in that house, she and I still talk to this day. She ultimately got a job and is back on her feet. Here’s the kicker, she eventually became one of our tenants, and she has NEVER missed a payment in 3 years of being there. All you need to do is give people a chance sometimes.

Disclaimer: Safety first, never approach a property if you do not feel safe. Call the police, they are there to assist you. Do not buy risky properties, such as squatter-occupied homes, if you do not have the funds to sustain the investment in case of worst-case scenarios. Buying properties sight unseen is a huge risk, plan for the worst. Nothing on this website or any blog post is financial advice.

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