Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2018

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Nevada couple uses law to take possession of abandoned home

RENO — A Reno couple used a little-known law to take possession of an abandoned home in an older, upscale part of town where similar brick, Tudor-style homes are selling for more than $400,000.

Vickie and Jeff Francovich paid $6,500 in delinquent property taxes on a home in Reno's Newlands Heights Historic District and started fixing up the home to move in, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.

The cost of the repairs and taxes was more than the house was worth when they found it in 2012, Vickie Francovich said. Online real estate database company Zillow estimates the house is worth more than $500,000 today.

Instead of buying the house from the owner, the Francoviches took advantage of a law called adverse possession that allows anyone to trespass and seize an abandoned property after meeting certain criteria.

In Nevada, that person can spend five years paying property taxes and, if they want, improving the property, before suing the current owner for the title.

Adverse possession exists because the American legal system generally prefers land to be used rather than sit unused, said Steve Silva, a land use and eminent domain attorney at Fennemore Craig who teaches property law at Truckee Meadows Community College.

"Do you want an absentee owner who ignores the property and leaves a vacant house or fallow field, or do you want someone who takes care of it and improves it?" Silva said. "The law does not like waste."

But the law is rarely applied to take over an entire house. The Francoviches' lawyer, Michael Hoy, estimated this would be the sixth such case in Nevada.

But there's a catch to the law.

If the owner returns, they can fight to gain the property back.

"It's fascinating in the sense that it is different — it's not something many people are aware of, I had never heard of it," Vickie Francovich said. "For five years we wondered, 'What do we do if she comes back?' And she didn't come back. So that's the statute of limitations."

Over the last six years, the Francoviches lived in the house part time and rented it out while waiting for the five years to pass. They've also lived in their own home, which they are now selling.

The house's previous owner, Joan Brown, purchased the house in the late 1970s after graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, according to court documents and Brown's longtime friends. She lived in the house until about 2005.

Brown's sister-in-law told Vickie Francovich they hadn't seen Brown in more than 10 years, but that she always wanted to go to Europe. One of Brown's cousins also said he was not interested in the house and only wanted to find out where Brown went, according to Reno police interviews.

A private investigator could not find out what happened to Brown after 2009.