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The house was for sale — but the sign suddenly went missing

South Florida real estate broker Liza Mendez was under contract to sell a bank-owned house last year when the buyers called with some news: Her sign out front was gone.

Mendez stopped by, saw cars at the property and called the police. When Miami-Dade officers showed up to clear the house a few weeks later, the people inside ran out the back, leaving behind cars, cellphones, a television and two dogs.

“I hope that’s the last time I have anything like that,” said Mendez, owner of Pedro Realty International.

Few cities epitomized last decade’s housing craze and crash as much as Las Vegas and Miami — soaring home values and booming construction followed by plunging prices, high unemployment and mass foreclosures.

Abandoned homes became all too common as well. The Miami Association of Realtors started hearing from members around 2011 or 2012 that their listings had squatters, said Danielle Blake, senior vice president of housing and government affairs.

Homes were listed in fliers and newspapers and sometimes on Craigslist. In one scam, somebody might show a house to multiple sets of prospective tenants and get deposits from them all, according to Miami-Dade police Sgt. William Houston, formerly of the economic crimes bureau.

Among the cases to make headlines: A 23-year-old Brazilian national who called himself “Loki Boy” had moved into an empty mansion in Boca Raton, some 45 miles north of Miami, and a family was living rent-free in a million-dollar house in Coral Gables, just outside Miami.

Squatters didn’t spread around Miami right when the market crashed. But eventually, they were “just about anywhere and everywhere,” Mendez said.

‘Usually they’re destroyed’

Police in Southern Nevada have reported widespread use of fake leases at squatter houses. Same goes for South Florida: Miami-Dade police said they see bogus rental contracts all the time, and Miami city police Detective Jesse Henriquez said he’s received one every time.

Officers hear plenty of tangled stories from people on how they ended up in a house. One man told Henriquez that he was walking through the ghetto with $2,000 in his pocket, mere “chump change,” and rented the place from a guy mowing the lawn.

“Sometimes, I have to hold back and — it’s all I can do to crack up just like you did,” Henriquez said.

Squatter homes can have running utilities and be kept in good shape, but they also can fall into disrepair. At a former bank-owned squatter house in Coral Gables that was later demolished by new owners, the roof was damaged and covered in shredded blue tarp, windows and doors were broken, and landscaping was overgrown, city records show.

“Usually they’re destroyed,” said Miami locksmith Armando Ramos, co-owner of Dolphins Lock and Security. “I’ve seen some crazy stuff.”

Miami-Dade Detective Roody Gaston encountered a home with dozens of cats and dogs and feces. Houston went into a house where a family used a paint bucket as a toilet and pulled down drywall, perhaps to mask the odor.

The family also had at least five canaries, whose waste trays hadn’t been cleaned.

“All of that going on was like a petri dish of just something vile,” Houston said.

Contact Eli Segall at esegall@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0342. Follow @eli_segall on Twitter.

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