Squatting is when a person finds an abandoned or vacant property and moves in without discussing it with the property owner. It sounds like breaking and entering – except sometimes it is legal.
Squatters’ rights are a potential threat to landlords, and steps should be taken to prevent squatters from taking residency in a landlord’s property.
Some cities have laws that state if a squatter has lived in your home for more than 30 days, they are no longer trespassing. Yes, even if you have not given a squatter permission to live on your property they can live inside of your unit. No contract, lease, or payments required.
Squatters Find Loopholes
Many states don’t give rights to squatters, but all states give rights to tenants.
There are two key differences between a tenant and a squatter.
- Squatters don’t pay rent.
- Landlords don’t know about squatters and they haven’t given them permission to live in the unit.
However, squatters have discovered methods of getting around those conditions.
Paying Rent: the Squatter Way
Conventionally, rent payment is made in cash (i.e. a predetermined amount listed in a lease). Technically, a tenant can pay rent through labor. Many states have laws that allow tenants to deduct the cost of repairs from rent. A caretaker can live with a family if they are taking care of a family member. Housekeepers live with families to clean the home, cook food, etc. A squatter is almost like a house sitter. A house sitter can live in a house while the owner is away to water plants and, ironically, make sure that no one breaks in.
If the squatter makes repairs to the property or generally adds to its value, they can make the argument that these improvements were payment for living in the home. Improvements can be as simple as adding curtains or fixing a leaky sink. A squatter can argue that they paid you by cleaning out the gutters or a chimney. Generally, payment can be anything the squatter did to the property to make themselves more comfortable.
Owner Permission and Knowledge
To get a difficult squatter off of your property, first, you have to realize they are on your property. They might be staying in your vacation home. They may be using a rental property that was, unfortunately, vacant for far too long. Wherever they are, if you’re reporting them to the police or pursuing legal options, you’ve discovered them. That means you know they are living in your property.
Fortunately and unfortunately, tenants have rights. It’s fortunate because unethical landlords cannot kick out real tenants without going through due process. It’s unfortunate because if your squatter can prove that they are a tenant, regaining control of your property will be a lot more difficult.
Some squatters have been given verbal permission to stay in the property by a landlord who has given up hope. Verbal permission can be construed as a contract. Choose your words wisely.
Technically, if it seems like you have given up on the squatter, it can be considered permission to live on your property. Statements like: “Do whatever you want,” or “I’m done arguing with you about this,” can be twisted to seem like a verbal contract.
How Do Squatters Establish Tenancy
If it looks like a person is a tenant of a property, the police aren’t going to arrest them for trespassing. Squatters know the loopholes and they exploit them. Squatters can prove they are tenants by showing officers mail addressed to them at your address. They won’t be able to show a rent payment stub, but it doesn’t matter. No, a piece of mail doesn’t mean that you live at a property. Mail is addressed incorrectly every day. However, it’s enough for the police to not be able to remove the squatter.
Squatters can also prove tenancy by showing an officer a utility bill, which, believe it or not, isn’t difficult for them to get. Utility companies don’t assume that the person calling to turn on electricity or water is a squatter. Utility companies don’t ask for proof of tenancy and may just turn on power for the squatter.
Squatters lie to officers all of the time. If a complaint comes from a neighbor, they tell police officers that they need a complaint from the owner to evict them. If you’re the one complaining, they’ll tell the officer that you’re an angry landlord wrongfully trying to evict them. At that point, a police officer can no longer help you.
Thus, the burden shifts to you to prove that the squatter does not live in your property, which means you have to take the squatter to court.
Squatter to Homeowner
A squatter can come to own land that you paid for through adverse possession. Adverse possession means your squatter occupied your property hostily, actually, openly, notoriously, exclusively and continuously for a certain period of time.
A squatter can be “hostile” in three ways. They may:
- live on your land without knowing that the land belongs to anyone,
- know that the land is yours and willingly trespass on it, or
- make an honest mistake in using your property, meaning they relied on an incorrect deed.
The squatter needs to prove that they treated your land as if it was their own. This can be proven by demonstrating improvements they made to the home or property.
Openly and Notoriously
This means that it has been perfectly clear to everyone that the squatter has been living on this land. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you knew the squatter was on your property. However, it does mean that you could have figured it out if you had been checking on your property.
Exclusive and Continuous Possession
This means the squatter has been living on the property alone or with family for the entire period of time. The trespasser cannot be sharing the land with you or with a stranger.
If the squatter left your property for a while and came back, the time before and while they were gone does not count. States have different time periods during which a squatter needs to have lived on your land.
Some states require a squatter to pay taxes on the property to gain rights. In some states, like Washington, the squatter must pay you taxes for the last seven years to gain possession of the property.
Protecting Against Squatters
The best protection against squatters, trespassers, and adverse possession is to be vigilant of your property. If your property is vacant and in a different state and you can’t take frequent trips to check on the place, you may want to hire a property management company to look after it for you.
Additionally, you can post no trespassing signs on your property or install an alarm. A squatter cannot claim possession of your property if they were not able to make it their own. The best way to prevent that is to keep them out altogether.
Once squatters have entered your property, the best course of action is to call the police. While squatters have ways to make the police go away, it still might work. Additionally, it will give you a beginning layer of evidence to use against the squatter in court.
After calling the police, you can try to get the squatter to sign a lease. That way there’s proof they don’t own the property, and they cannot permanently take it from you. Also, you’ll have a lease for them to break. If they break the lease, you’ll have a simpler course of action in court.
Your final option is to hire a lawyer and take the squatter to court. It is unfortunate that you may have to spend money to resolve the problem. However, the sooner you regain control of the property, the sooner you can begin to make income off of it again. The sooner you take the squatter to court the better because the longer they have lived on your land the more valid their claim against you is.
Why Do Squatters Squat?
It’s easy to sympathize with a squatter. Most squatters are homeless people looking for shelter. If they see an abandoned place that can keep them warm and safe, it’s understandable why they would try to live there. Squatting becomes a problem when squatters take shelter in your home or a property that you plan to use to earn income.
Property owners are not the villains for trying to reclaim their property. Just like a squatter is using the property for shelter, a landlord uses the property for income. Income gives the landlord the financial ability to feed their family, to have a place to live and to maintain a normal life. A homeowner might be left homeless because of a squatter. More so, landlords and homeowners have to use their own finances to fight the squatter in court. Landlords lose potential income they could have earned from the property. Homeowners lose money because they have to pay for a place to live.
No one takes a property back from a squatter to make the squatter homeless. A landlord or homeowner takes a property back because they worked hard to earn enough money to pay for the property.