Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Imagine returning home to find a complete stranger has moved in.
Squatters are making themselves comfortable in homes across the Las Vegas valley and some homeowners are demanding lawmakers address the problem.
Jerry Petrosky's southwest valley home had the works: full kitchen, indoor balcony and tile floors.
"This is some place anyone would want to live in," Jerry said.
He learned that lesson the hard way last October. Jerry showed up to the house to find someone else had moved in. Complete strangers.
"The first thing you think of is you're crazy," Jerry said. "That's someone's playing a prank or that someone's playing a joke."
It was no joke. Jerry has since sold the home but it was empty last fall as he prepared to short-sale. Whoever moved in changed the locks and then showed a fake lease, Jerry said. Like it or not, Jerry was now their landlord.
"You're angry. You're bitter. You're afraid for your family," he said.
Action News visited the home last fall; someone inside claimed they had a right to be there.
Jerry called Las Vegas police but officers told him they don't get involved in landlord-tenant cases. He would have to go to court and get the squatters evicted.
"You expect the police to protect you," Jerry said. "You expect the police to fight for the rights and you feel let down."
Metro police spokesman Officer Larry Hadfield said officers pursue criminal complaints and do not enforce civil laws. While police can cite people for trespassing, Hadfield said Metro officers are not in the business of verifying leases.
"What they do is establish whether or not probable cause exists and if they can do an enforcement, they will," Hadfield said.
The case is left to the courts and the Las Vegas Township Constable's office, which handles evictions. Spokesman Lou Toomin said there's no hard data on how many squatters in our area have been kicked out.
Many squatters consider Nevada's empty homes to be their homes, and they have plenty to choose from. Numbers from Realty Trac from July show 9,066 homes in the valley are in some stage of foreclosure.
"There has to be some sort of legislation in place to protect the owner of the property," Toomin said.
We took the concerns to state lawmakers.
"Often times, these are professional squatters. They know what they're doing. They know how to falsify a lease," said Assemblyman James Healey, whose district includes Jerry's former home.
The problem: the eviction process can take weeks or months. Squatters can use legal tactics to stall the process.
"A balance has to be struck," Healey said.
Healey wants to make sure landlords can't abuse new laws to unfairly evict legitimate tenants. Lawmakers passed Assembly bill 286 in 2009 to clarify the definition of trespassing but some said that's not enough.
Action News asked state Senator Justin Jones why lawmakers haven't addressed the problem so far.
"I don't know that it's ever been a problem before," said Jones.
Jones said lawmakers are reviewing proposals.
Jerry got the squatters evicted in November but not without a court fight.
Michael: "Do you think the system let you down as a homeowner?"
Jerry: "The system's letting me down but it's not just letting me down, it's letting everyone who's been in this situation down."
Jerry thinks leases should be notarized to cut down on fraud, but those can be faked too.
The constable's office wants state law changed to evict squatters within 24 hours.
Lawmakers have not made any promises except to discuss the issue when they return to session in February.