A strange water bill for an empty house led to Jean de Segonzac's discovery of squatters in his house. NewsdayTV's Rachel Weiss reports. Credit: Newsday/Staff

Last year, Jean de Segonzac found the ideal home for his family in Bellport. He was pleased with the modest ranch because it allowed ground-floor access to its various rooms and a backyard for his 33-year-old daughter, who uses a wheelchair. It had structural problems, so he delayed moving in and shut down all the utilities to wait on permits for renovation.

Three weeks later, a bill from the water company arrived.

When he called to ask why services had not been turned off, they said they couldn't. Someone was living there.

The next day, de Segonzac, 70, went to his home and was shocked when a polite man opened the door and showed him an official-looking lease. Inside were four adults, two children and a dog. It was filled with furniture, a big-screen TV and a huge aquarium. That's when de Segonzac realized his dream of a peaceful transition to village life was gone. And his squatter nightmare had begun.


  • "New York is probably one of the worst jurisdictions" for squatting incidents, according to commercial litigation attorney Anthony W. Cummings.
  • The COVID-related eviction moratorium, overtaxed courts and hot real estate scene are some of the factors contributing to squatting incidents, experts say.
  • An enraged homeowner who tries to throw out a squatter can actually be arrested for harassment.

"My family was in a very dark place," he said. "And it was a long time before we saw light at the end of the tunnel."

Tales about strangers taking over homes illegally or renters and/or mortgage holders who stop making payments but stay put anyway are not unfamiliar. Experts say without taking the proper precautions, they could end up in exhausting court fights that include costly legal fees — all just to get their property back.

Paula Rosado was also in a dark place after she rented her three-bedroom Sag Harbor vacation home to a man who stopped paying his rent and utilities, but refused to move. He did finally, but left the home with broken windows and doors, as well as rugs and furniture chewed to pieces by his two German shepherds.

"We're still recovering from our losses," said Rosado, who estimated the damage at $150,000.

Genya Markon’s squatter problem began in 2021 when she returned from abroad to settle back into her family home in Hampton Bays. The renter who had been occupying it was supposed to be gone, but wasn’t. And she wasn’t moving, Markon said.

"There was nothing I could do about it," she said.

"The whole situation stinks," said Andrew Lieb, an attorney with offices in Smithtown and Manhasset and the founder of Lieb School, a continuing education institution based in Smithtown. "The world has people who are squatters. Either accept that or don't become a homeowner. That's the harsh reality."

Can you throw out a squatter?

Historically, squatters rights were enacted to prevent vigilante justice and violent situations. Obviously, a tenant or mortgage holder sometimes has a legitimate beef with a landlord or bank. But some take advantage of the rules. Probably the most famous example was an East Meadow man who didn't pay his mortgage and used court maneuvers to avoid eviction for 23 years. One time, he was offered $20,000 to leave, but refused.

An enraged homeowner who tries to throw out a squatter can actually be arrested for harassment. In New York, ousting them from the premises is the sheriff's job, although they won't remove anyone without a court order. In February, a Georgia homeowner checking on his just-vacated rental home discovered someone inside, according to media reports. He called the cops. The illegal tenant told them they had a lease, which, of course, was fake. The police ended up arresting the owner for home invasion of his own residence. Those charges later were dropped and the squatters removed in August.

No hard figures exist on how many squatters haunt homes on Long Island, as well as throughout the United States. Still, factors like the COVID-related moratorium on evictions, along with slow-moving, overtaxed courts have created opportunities for strangers to take over vacant residences. At the same time, the hot real estate scene has reduced inventory and increased pressures on the homeless.

For the people doing this, it's likely not their first choice. A lack of affordable housing can force people into desperate situations.

— Rao Ali Shaan Khan, associate broker with Charles Rutenberg Realty Inc. and director for Long Island Board of Realtors

Although towns may keep records of individual squatter incidents, there is no national database concerning how often something like this occurs, said Anthony W. Cummings, a commercial litigation attorney who represented Markon and who has handled several similar landlord-tenant cases for his firm, Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman LLP in Hauppauge.

"This is a common occurrence and the pandemic made it an especially bad situation," he said. "New York is probably one of the worst jurisdictions for this stuff. The law is so pro-tenant in this respect."

"For the people doing this, it's likely not their first choice," said Rao Ali Shaan Khan, an associate broker with Charles Rutenberg Realty Inc. and a director for the Long Island Board of Realtors. "A lack of affordable housing can force people into desperate situations."

Water bill leads to squatter discovery

Jean de Segonzac stands in front of the foundation of...

Jean de Segonzac stands in front of the foundation of his home, which had to be bulldozed. Credit: Drew Singh

I was devastated.

— Jean de Segonzac

The trouble started for de Segonzac, a director and longtime contributor to the "Law & Order" television franchise, when he closed on the Bellport home for $650,000 in August 2022. He and his family found they liked the village vibe after renting a home there in the past. They live in Manhattan, but planned to make Bellport their primary residence after the renovation.

Built in 1952, the 1,200-square-foot ranch, which had four beds and 3½ baths, was in bad shape. Water seepage from a caved-in wall had spread black mold into the basement. Unauthorized additions in the form of three separate living areas for members of the former owner had to be removed to qualify for a certificate of occupancy. After hiring a contractor, de Segonzac shut off the electricity and water, cut the line from the oil tank to the water heater, locked up and left town for three weeks while awaiting permits for repairs.

He found the water bill upon return. Thinking it was a mistake, he drove to the residence and discovered the locks had been changed. When he banged on the door, a man opened it with a lease in hand. He said a man and his elderly mother had rented the place to them, but he couldn't provide their names. He paid cash so there was no receipt.

De Segonzac thought he had been scammed. But when he called police, they pulled him aside and told him the occupant had a criminal record and had done this before. Even so, they said they couldn't evict anyone without a court order. 

"I was devastated," he said.

This was the beginning of de Segonzac's education in the bizarre world of squatter rights.

He learned, for example, that generally, if a squatter has been on the property for less than 30 days, they can be removed as a trespasser. After 30 days, however, the person automatically is classified as a tenant — whether the owner wants them there or not. 

In de Segonzac's case, the intruder promised to move out before a month was over, but didn't, which automatically threw the issue to the courts.

New York State laws on squatters

According to New York State law, squatters earn more rights if they perform things like home improvements. Also, a homeowner can't lock a squatter out of their own home once they are settled in, nor turn off utilities. They also can't be evicted just because they don't have a legitimate lease (some print out a bogus one from the internet as a delaying tactic).

"The system is crazy," said Paula Rosado, a New York marketing professional who lives in Manhattan.

She had no trouble in past years with her three-bedroom, Sag Harbor vacation home, which she rents for $4,500 a month in winter and $25,000 a month in summer, for extra income.

Then, in fall 2019, she rented it to Jonathan Davis, a real estate broker in the Hamptons who currently works for a global real estate firm. She said he even offered to write the contract himself and told her she could trust him because he was a local.

But he stopped paying rent and utilities at the end of his agreed time, staying four additional months. This was when COVID put a hold on evictions.

When she visited her home the day he was supposed to move, Rosado discovered the walls were pockmarked with holes, furniture was urine-stained, (likely from the tenant's two dogs, although the lease stipulated no animals) and the kitchen splattered with food. Her artwork had been replaced with movie posters of the "The Wolf of Wall Street." When she complained, the tenant said she was harassing him and called police.

There's almost never a quick solution. Unfortunately, there are people out there who know the loopholes and the time frames and how to manipulate the system.

— Brian Matthews, attorney with Matthews, Kirst and Cooley

"He destroyed her house," said Rosado's attorney, Brian Matthews with the East Hampton law firm of Matthews, Kirst and Cooley. His client won a $200,000 settlement in Suffolk County Supreme Court with interest, plus additional damages for each day Davis refused to vacate the premises. Davis appealed the judgment at the appellate court in Brooklyn.

Davis did not return repeated phone calls.

The three-year fight is another example of the legal morass people can find themselves in with courts. Rosado said that in all this time she has received no compensation for damage, lost income or legal fees.

"There's almost never a quick solution," Matthews said. "Unfortunately, there are people out there who know the loopholes and the time frames and how to manipulate the system."

Pandemic eviction protection shields squatter

Credit: Genya Markon

Genya Markon, an 80-year-old former collections curator at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., always looked forward to spending summers in the Hampton Bays home she inherited from her mother, especially because it allowed her to escape the heat in Israel where she lives most of the year. But after being quarantined in Jerusalem because of COVID, she reluctantly rented it to a woman from Connecticut who said she was a real estate agent.

As time went on, the woman complained she was having money problems. Markon reduced the rent. Finally, the renter stopped paying. Markon told her she didn't have to pay it back if she left, because Markon was returning to the three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house in June 2021.

When Markon showed up in June, the woman was still there — and had moved in her own furniture and stacked Markon's in the garage, blocking her car.

"That began the saga," Markon said.

She came to the home with her son, who forced open the door. They found the place in disrepair and littered with trash. The renter called police. The officer who responded was sympathetic, but informed Markon that she was trespassing and had to leave.

"We spent the summer trying to get her out," Markon said.

Because the woman had applied for pandemic eviction protection, Markon realized there was no easy way to have her removed. Her attorney, Anthony Cummings, filed a lawsuit saying the woman's application was a ruse to stay in the home without paying her bill.

She did finally get out — three months after Markon paid her $5,000 to leave.

"Which people tell me was a bargain," she said.

The woman could not be reached for comment. Her attorney did not return phone calls.

Although the lawsuit was dropped, Markon said the incident cost her an additional $10,000, which included money for repairs, rent for another house to occupy and legal costs — which is why she never again will consider leasing her summer retreat.

"Not after what I went though," she said.

What it can cost to remove squatters

Credit: Jean de Segonzac

Apparently, de Segonzac's illegal occupant was one of those who knew the loopholes.

He had reconnected the fuel line to the water heater, sealed off the moldy part of the basement and laid new carpet in the dining room. He mowed the lawn, painted rooms, hung curtains and repaired toilets. The kids went to school. Everything looked legit.

When de Segonzac called a lawyer to ask what could be done, he was told it probably would take a year or two to extract the occupants and cost a minimum of $10,000. The attorney suggested an alternative that stunned de Segonzac: Offer them that amount in cash to move out.

Finding the right home for his daughter had been a two-year search and he knew the planned home renovations were going to be time consuming and costly.

"We were already stressed out," he said. "Then this happened."

Ironically, the home’s deteriorated condition turned out to be a blessing.

The architect for de Segonzac’s renovation, Matthew Petheram with the firm Enspire Design Group, contacted town officials, who swung into action.

"Bellport is pretty close-knit and they were upset this was happening in their community," he said.

They sent in a team of inspectors who spotted the black mold in the basement. Because the home didn’t have a certificate of occupancy and was a health hazard, the property was condemned. The squatters tore up the "Condemned" signs posted on the property, but eventually were forced to move.

Owner de Segonzac wanted the home gutted to make sure they didn’t return. But Petheram suggested they offer it to the fire department for training drills. Over the next few weekends, firefighters destroyed the doors, windows and roof.

"They pretty much made it 100% uninhabitable," the architect said.

His dream home was bulldozed. Concrete for the foundation of its replacement has just been poured. Meanwhile, he is anxious that the public be warned how easily something like this can happen. Looking back, he wishes had been more careful.

"I should have spoken to all my neighbors. I should have asked them to keep a lookout while I was gone. I should have put up security cameras," he said. "But I didn't think that was necessary. It’s just a small sleepy village." 

How to avoid the squatter ordeal

The best way to keep a squatter from taking over your property is never give them access in the first place, said Patrick Fife, associate general counsel for the Long Island Board of Realtors (LIBOR). Here are LIBOR’s tips to keep squatters at bay. And what to do if you find them in your home:

  • Check in often: Stop by your property regularly to make sure it is secure. This gives the appearance to potential squatters that the house is occupied. Have accumulated mail and packages picked up.
  • Keep up appearances: Make sure the lawn is cut and the exterior looks neat. Properties that appear neglected are squatter targets.
  • Lock it up: Make the property secure. Keep doors and windows locked. Install motion lights, security cameras and doorbell cameras if possible.
  • Notify the neighbors: Let them know your home is vacant and ask them to alert you if they see anyone on the property. Squatters typically aren’t good residents so neighbors have a vested interest to keep them away.
  • Call the cops: Police may check on your property during patrols upon request. Give them your address and let them know how long you will be away.
  • If you've got a squatter, get a lawyer: Preferably a real estate attorney who knows the technical rules of the game and can speed the process along.
  • Move fast: It only takes 30 days for a squatter to gain rights as a legal tenant, so don’t delay speaking to an attorney and taking action.
  • Don't do it yourself: Under state law, it is illegal to remove a squatter without using court action. Ultimately, the court must authorize the sheriff to remove the squatter.
  • Don't get your hopes up: Removing an illegal occupant from your property may take months or years and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. The good news is that, although the law moves slowly, chances are you will get your property back. Eventually.

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