Metropolis: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Squatting on His Rights

Getting an unintended tenant out proves a lot easier than letting him in.


The first mistake Wayne Burak made was trying to sell his house without help from a real estate agent. The second mistake was trusting a stranger. But his worst mistake was in being unaware of how easily a homeowner can lose control of a property to squatters.

Trouble began earlier this year after Wayne and Leda Burak decided to sell their south Fort Worth home as part of their divorce settlement. Since they were in a hurry to sell, they didn’t expect to get top dollar for the two-story red brick house that the Tarrant Appraisal District values at $170,000. To squeeze the most from their sale, they decided to forgo professional help in finding a buyer.

“There’s not much equity in the property, and the equity has to be split between us by court order,” said Burak, who is a professional musician, business owner, and former principal cellist for the Fort Worth Chamber and Symphony Orchestra.

The house went on the market in January at $139,000. In February, Wayne Burak received a call from an interested buyer named Marvin Henry, who claimed he had been pre-approved for a loan by a finance company. He wanted to look inside the house. Burak, unable to meet with him, unwisely told Henry where to find a spare key. Henry called back and told Burak he wanted the house. Later, he called again to say he would need a few weeks to deal with an illness in his family before he could finalize the purchase.

Meanwhile, Burak was out of the country from late February to late March. When he returned, he called Henry, who had switched finance companies. “Red flags were appearing, but we didn’t know enough to act properly,” Burak said. “A Realtor would have said, ‘That’s enough; you need to look for a new buyer.’ ”

A May 8 appraisal led to a surprise. “The appraiser called me and said, ‘You have a family living in your property,’” Burak said. “I said, ‘That’s impossible. It’s supposed to be vacant.’ That was when I was aware that the family had moved in.”

Henry at some point had settled his common-law wife, Sandra McNeil, and several children into the home. A confused Burak, who had leased another house and was living in Arlington, drove to his old home on Grassland Drive near South Hulen Street. A teen-ager answered the door and said Henry was not there. Burak barged inside and saw the family’s belongings filling the rooms. The family was receiving mail at the home and sleeping in a bed that Burak had left in the master bedroom.

By then, other potential buyers had shown interest, but Burak’s hands were tied — he couldn’t show the house. Burak went to Fort Worth police, but an officer told him it was a civil matter.

Even though Henry was not a legal tenant, he appeared to be protected by tenant rights enforced in Texas by justices of the peace. Evictions require court filings, posted notices, waiting periods, and hearings. Meanwhile, Henry was still claiming that he was getting his loan processed and intending to buy the house. Burak decided to work with him and try to make the sale go through. Weeks passed.

Increasingly worried, Burak began looking into Henry’s background and found numerous bankruptcy filings, outstanding judgments, and a history of bounced checks.

An Irving finance company representative said she gave a loan application to Henry in April. She agreed to discuss the situation with Fort Worth Weekly but didn’t want her name or company’s name published because of confidentiality issues. “I feel for the Buraks; they’re really sweet people, and they got suckered,” she said.

Henry had filed for bankruptcy three times between 1995 and 1998 to keep creditors at bay, but each time the proceeding was dismissed before being finalized. The filings therefore weren’t held against him during the loan process. “His financial record was kind of shaky, but it was doable,” the finance company representative said.

She requested earnest money, and Henry provided a $1,400 check, which bounced. He later provided money orders to cover the amount.

Meanwhile, public records revealed a judgment from March 2002, filed by a former landlord named Randy Garms, but Henry said he was settling the debt. Other problems surfaced, including a bank statement with a negative balance. “We started talking about where he was going to get the funds and that’s when he said he was going to try to go to his church and get funds,” she said.

She gave Henry until June 30 to clear up those matters. He missed the deadline and didn’t get the loan. “I don’t have that much problem getting information from somebody who really wants to buy a home,” she said.

Garms, a hospital administrator who lives in Fort Worth, groaned when asked about Henry. Garms rented him a house in 1999, and Henry made payments for a while, then began sending payments late, and eventually stopped paying. Garms went through the eviction process to remove Henry from the house. “You can’t show the house or sell the house, and he wouldn’t pay rent, so you’re in the middle of no-man’s land,” he said. “There needs to be a criminal charge added to this process to get police involved to get people out.”

A justice of the peace awarded Garms a judgment of $4,000, but Garms hasn’t received a penny and doesn’t expect to collect. “In Texas, you can’t garnish wages to recoup any of that money,” he said.

Another judgment — $3,200 for unpaid rent and damages — was levied against Henry in May after he skipped out of the Country Bend Apartments to move into the Burak home. Apartment Manager Monte Johnson said evicting people after they have signed leases or contracts is not difficult. “If they don’t pay here, I evict them and they are out in three weeks,” she said.

Evictions are more daunting when someone moves in without a signed contract. Johnson recalled a tenant who asked to get inside an apartment to measure for furniture and then moved in and refused to leave.

“We tell our people not to give a key to anybody unless they sign a lease and pay the rent,” she said. “If they move in without a legal document you have nothing legal to evict them from. You can do it, but you have to get an attorney, and it takes three to four months. Some people are pretty wise to that.”

On July 15, Burak and Henry appeared in Justice Gary Ritchie’s court for an eviction hearing. The judge ruled in Burak’s favor and gave Henry until July 21 to vacate. Henry had an outstanding warrant for a bad check and was taken into custody. On July 21, a few hours before he would have had to vacate, Henry appealed his eviction. The case will be assigned to a county court, buying Henry more time to squat.

Burak was flabbergasted. “I’m having my house stolen from me, and this guy is playing the system to the hilt,” he said.

Henry spoke with the Weekly recently at the Burak home, which Henry and his family are still enjoying. Henry, a truck driver, said Burak gave him permission to move into the house. He said his financing didn’t come through because the finance company didn’t communicate with him. He filed a previous bankruptcy because a former wife left him with unpaid bills. His credit record is erroneous. And so on.

“I don’t have nothing against Wayne but he’s gotten wind that he thinks I’m running a scam, but I’m not,” Henry said. “He already judged me.”

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