Squatter's rights?: Family endures court saga to move into their own home

Posted: Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nine years ago, Chuck Bartlett purchased a house on Beaver Loop Road in Kenai with the intent on settling down one day. After a nine-year tour in the U.S. Coast Guard, that day came.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Angie and Chuck Bartlett pose with their children Abe, at right, and Ery, Captain the cat and Buster the dog in front of their home on Beaver Loop. They had to fight a "squatter" in court before they could move into the house last week.

But when Bartlett arrived in Kenai this past May, he was surprised to find a woman already living there.

"I assumed that the house was empty," Bartlett said, as he hadn't rented it out since December 2007.

Bartlett introduced himself to the squatter, Sharon Speer, and said he would be moving into his house. Speer, who had been living in Bartlett's house for a few months, requested two months to move out.

Bartlett then went to the Kenai Police Department. However, KPD told Bartlett the issue was a civil matter and he needed go fill out the necessary paper work to have Speer evicted.

Bartlett then went to the Kenai Superior Court and was told he needed to fill out a notice to quit. Bartlett presented Speer with the notice, which gave her 30 days to move out. She requested 60.

After issuing Speer the notice, Bartlett returned to his home in Seattle. He returned July 9 -- more than 60 days since the eviction paper work was issued -- with his wife, Angie, and their two children.

Speer still had not moved out.

When Bartlett approached her about being way past the 30-day deadline to be out of his house, she asked for more time.

Bartlett, who's as mild-mannered as they come, wasn't asking Speer to reimburse him for the utility bills he paid while she was living in the house, which automatically are withdrawn from his bank account each month; he just wanted to move into his house. Bartlett even showed Speer his ID and house title, but it had no effect.

The next day, Bartlett and his family arrived at their house to move in, however, Speer refused to leave and called the police.

When the KPD arrived, Speer presented them with a handwritten lease, stating she had a right to live in the house. The lease also stated Speer would repair the house in lieu of paying rent.

The "lease" was never signed by Bartlett.

"I've never read it," he said. Bartlett said he hasn't authorized anyone to live in his home since his last tenant moved out two years ago.

Because Speer had this lease, again, there was nothing the KPD could do to mitigate the situation. Bartlett said the police said technically, Speer was not trespassing and they again had to go through the court system.

"They've always just said, 'It's a legal issue,'" he said.

"It's a civil process," said KPD Lt. Kim Wannamaker.

In the meantime, the Bartletts said they were told they couldn't come on to their own property.

With nowhere else to go, the Bartletts pitched a tent on the property adjacent to their home, which is owned by Bartlett's uncle.

"We own two homes and we're living in tents," Angie Bartlett said.

Because his uncle lives in Anchor Point, he was unaware that Chuck Bartlett and his family were back in town. So when neighbors saw the Bartletts erecting their tents, they called the police.

Chuck Bartlett said the officer was ready to throw them off of the property; however, he spoke to his uncle and cleared up the confusion.

Although they were allowed to stay on their family member's property, the situation enraged Angie Bartlett. There's nothing the police can do to evict a squatter with a false lease, yet there was almost no hesitation to toss our family off of our uncle's property, she said.

"We're homeowners and taxpayers of this community. We shouldn't be treated like this," she added.

The following Monday, June 13, the Bartlett's filed a forcible entry complaint against Speer, and filed for a writ of assistance. Their court date was set for June 17.

"Everything at court went very smooth," Chuck Bartlett said.

The judge ruled in the Bartletts' favor, giving Speer until 8 p.m. on June 19 to move out.

Finally, the Bartletts could look forward to enjoying a nice, hot meal as a family in their new home -- or so they thought.

Substantial damage was done to the home, including a missing hot water tank, dryer, well pump, furnace and water softener. Along with the stolen items, the plumbing underneath the house was disconnected and broken.

"We are in our house, but have no running water," Angie Bartlett said. "We can't use our facilities."

Some contractors were hired to fix up the home during Speer's stay, which she tried to force Chuck to pay for, and he said it's unclear whether the contractors took their equipment back due to unpaid fees or if someone else was responsible.

"When I left, there was a dryer there, now there's no dryer," Chuck Bartlett said.

"Trying even to cook dinner is difficult," Angie Bartlett added.

Once again, the Bartletts would have to go through the court system should they claim property damage against Speer. They are currently waiting a mandatory 20 days before they can serve Speer with that request. Monday marks the first day they could file the necessary paper work.

To make matters worse, before moving to Alaska, the Bartletts changed their homeowners' insurance in Seattle to renter's insurance and their Kenai home to their primary residence. Because of the change-over, the Bartletts can no longer claim the damages under their renter's insurance.

"We're screwed either way," Angie Bartlett said.

Chuck Bartlett said he had a suspicion someone was living in the house when he had a $600 utility bill. He continued to pay the utilities on the house the entire time Speer lived there to prevent his pipes from freezing. He estimated he spent about $2,000 a year on his Kenai home's utilities.

"When I saw these high bills ... I didn't pay too much attention," he said.

But if there's one positive that came from the whole experience, Chuck Bartlett said he learned a lot about being a homeowner.

"The lesson I learned: I would have changed my locks when the people left in December," he said. "Be very careful with your place."

"It's not the situation we envisioned," he said. "It makes me miss Seattle," Angie Bartlett added.

Wannamaker said planning prior to renting out a property is important.

"The best thing when renting or leasing is to have your legal ducks in a row before you open your property to somebody," he said.

Though Speer was never the Bartletts' tenant, Wannamaker said landlord-tenant issues are frequent occurrences for the KPD.

"We have many, many complaints and reports of different situations involving landlords and tenants," he said.

The fact that someone could forge a lease and have protection from eviction was mind-boggling to Chuck Bartlett.

"It seems backwards to me," he said. "It was frustrating to have to go through the whole legal process when there was nothing legal that started this process."

Mike Nesper can be reached at mike.nesper@peninsulaclarion.com.

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