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How do I claim an abandoned house in California? The ultimate guide.

If you want to legally claim an abandoned property in California, the key steps are:

  1. Research to verify the property meets the criteria for abandonment.
  2. Occupy the property openly for 5+ years to meet adverse possession rules.
  3. Pay all back taxes and make improvements to the property.
  4. File a quiet title lawsuit after the required occupancy timeframe.
  5. Alternatively, purchase a tax deed from the county if available.
  6. Consult experts like lawyers and accountants throughout the process.

California has over 200,000 empty homes that may seem "abandoned" or vacant. With housing prices outrageously high, I don‘t blame you for being tempted to claim one of these properties! Who wouldn‘t want to score a free house and avoid the brutal real estate market?

But it‘s not that simple my friend. Legally claiming an abandoned property in California requires following strict processes and meeting specific criteria.

In this comprehensive guide, I‘ll break down everything you need to know:

  • Defining abandoned property in California
  • Steps to claim ownership through adverse possession
  • Acquiring property through tax deed sales
  • Checking California‘s unclaimed property database
  • Understanding the substantial risks and costs
  • Consulting real estate attorneys before proceeding

I‘ve done extensive research as a legal geek and real estate fanatic to provide key info and warnings. My goal is to prepare you for navigating this complex process and highlight what‘s needed to legally claim an abandoned home. Let‘s dive in!

What Legally Qualifies as an Abandoned Property?

Under California law, for a property to be considered legally "abandoned" it must meet the following criteria:

  • The verified owner has not lived in or maintained the property for over 1 year in most cases.
  • Mortgage or property tax payments have gone unpaid for at least 1 year.
  • Utilities like water, gas and electricity have been shut off by providers.
  • The home has fallen into substantial disrepair from lack of upkeep.
  • No owner can be located after diligent search efforts.

Table 1 outlines the key factors that legally classify a property as abandoned in California:

Criteria Duration
Unoccupied by verified owner 12+ months
Delinquent mortgage/taxes 12+ months
No functioning utilities Typically 3+ months
Extensive disrepair Dependent on damage
Owner cannot be located After diligent search

Just because a property looks neglected or uninhabited does not automatically qualify it as abandoned from a legal standpoint. Extensive research is required to verify the status.

According to real estate data company RealtyTrac, over 200,000 homes in California stand empty as of 2022. But the vast majority still have verified owners. Only a small subset meet the technical criteria for legal abandonment.

Is it Legal to Simply Occupy an Empty House?

No! Entering and staying in an empty home without the verified owner‘s permission is considered trespassing and squatting, even if appears abandoned.

The property still legally belongs to the last known owner. You have no rights as the occupier until you successfully claim it through adverse possession or a tax sale.

Attempting to change the locks and move into an abandoned house immediately can lead to civil and criminal charges. You must carefully follow proper procedures to take legal ownership.

Claiming an Abandoned Property Through Adverse Possession

The most common way to claim an abandoned home is through a legal process called "adverse possession." In California, the key requirements are:

  • Openly occupying the property for 5 continuous years.
  • Paying property taxes for the full 5 year duration.
  • Maintaining the home by keeping up landscaping, making repairs, etc.
  • Living on the property without the owner‘s permission.
  • Providing evidence you believed you had the right to possess the property.

Here‘s a helpful timeline showing the adverse possession steps and duration:

Adverse Possession Timeline Duration
Research property status 2-4 weeks
Occupy the property openly 5 full years
Pay all property taxes 5 full years
Maintain/improve property Throughout occupancy
File quiet title lawsuit After 5 year occupancy
Total Duration 5+ years

As you can see, this is a marathon process spanning 5+ years until you can gain full ownership rights via adverse possession.

After successfully occupying the abandoned property openly for the required timeframe, you must then file a quiet title lawsuit in California court to claim legal ownership. Expect to pay around $2,000+ in attorney and legal fees for this process.

Buying a Tax Deed on an Abandoned Property

If an abandoned home has delinquent property taxes owed for 5+ years, the county can seize it and sell tax deeds to investors to recoup the unpaid taxes.

In some rare cases, you may be able to purchase a tax deed on an abandoned property for as little as $1,500 at auction!

But don‘t get too excited yet. Additional major costs will apply:

  • Researching tax deed sales and identifying eligible abandoned properties.
  • Paying approximately $5,000+ in legal fees for a quiet title action.
  • Covering thousands in back taxes owed, which accrue significant penalties.
  • Funding repairs and maintenance to make the property livable.

A tax deed sale can allow you to take ownership of an abandoned home for much lower cost than buying on the open market. However, you should still expect to spend $10,000 to $20,000 minimum between legal fees, back taxes and repairs.

This table estimates the typical costs:

Cost Estimate
Tax deed purchase price $1,500 – $5,000
Quiet title legal fees $5,000 – $10,000
Back taxes owed $5,000 – $15,000
Repairs and maintenance $5,000 – $20,000+
Total $10,000 – $50,000+

As you can see, tax deeds are not a magic loophole for getting an abandoned house for free or cheap. Extensive costs quickly apply. Proceed with caution if going this route.

Checking California‘s Unclaimed Property Database

California maintains a public database of unclaimed financial assets called the Unclaimed Property Program. Types of unclaimed property include:

  • Bank accounts and safe deposit boxes
  • Uncashed checks, cashier‘s checks, and money orders
  • Insurance policy proceeds
  • Stocks and dividends
  • Wages or commissions owed

If you locate unclaimed property owned by you in the database, you can file a claim to retrieve it for free after validating your identity.

However, real estate and houses do not apply for unclaimed property seizures – only financial assets like cash and stocks.

So while you may discover some long lost money in your name, the unclaimed property program does not provide a method for acquiring abandoned homes in California.

Consult Attorneys to Understand Your Rights

Attempting to claim an abandoned property without proper legal guidance is extremely risky. To understand your rights and navigate the complex ownership process, extensivelty consult these experts:

Real Estate Attorney – Can research title records, verify status, explain laws.

Tax Attorney – Provides guidance on back taxes owed and tax sales.

Housing Code Attorney – Assesses compliance with occupancy codes.

Contractors – Inspect repairs needed to occupy the property.

An attorney can identify any lien holders, heirs or owners who still retain rights that could prevent you from taking ownership. Paying for expert consultation upfront can avoid massive headaches down the road!

Consider the Substantial Risks and Costs

I‘ll be straight with you my friend – legally claiming an abandoned home in California involves serious risks and costs, including:

Expensive Repairs – Making an abandoned property livable again can cost tens of thousands in repairs and contractors.

Back Taxes Owed – Years of unpaid property taxes accrue substantial fees and interest.

Housing Violations – Expensive permits and compliance costs may apply.

Former Owners – Previous owners could return and file suit to reclaim ownership rights.

Injury Liability – Injuries on the property pose massive liability risks.

Squatters & Criminals – Abandoned homes attract illegal occupancy and crime.

No Utilities – Getting water, power and gas restored takes time and money.

Legal Fees – Expect to pay $5,000+ in lawyer fees for title claims.

I strongly advise proceeding with extreme caution before attempting to claim an abandoned property in California. While available, they are not quick or free money!

With the right research and guidance, an abandoned home could provide affordable housing. But all risks and costs must be carefully weighed first. Patience and diligence is key.

I hope this detailed guide provides helpful insights my friend! Let me know if you have any other questions. Stay savvy out there!