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.
Who are Squatters?
Squatters are people who move into abandoned, foreclosed, or otherwise unoccupied homes or premises. In general, state laws allow property owners to evict a squatter for violating loitering or trespassing laws. However, if the squatter can establish that they have tenants’ rights, or can gain adverse possession due to the property having been completely abandoned, then they may have grounds to remain on the premises.
Squatters’ rights are a potentially serious threat to landlords since they so easily find loopholes in the system. For this reason, specific steps should be taken to prevent squatters from residing in and taking ownership of a landlord’s rental propery.
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 your unit. No contract, lease, or payments required.
Squatters vs. Trespassers
There is a distinct difference between squatters and trespassers. Squatters move into a vacant residence, put the utilities in their name, get mail at the property address, and openly take possession of the property. Knowing squatters’ rights is essential when you want to take action against them. In today’s economy, finding squatters living in your vacant rental property is not unlikely.
Squatters often prepare forged documents to show police and other authorities to prevent being removed from the property. It is usually very difficult for police to determine who has legal documents and who does not, especially if the homeowner/landlord is not present.
Trespassers, on the other hand, break windows and doors to gain entry (AKA forced entry). They do not have utilities and usually have no furniture. The police are much more willing to eject trespassers since they are outwardly breaking the law.
A trespasser is NOT someone:
- Whose lease has lapsed;
- Who stopped paying rent;
- Who breaches the lease in any way.
A trespasser is someone who never had a lease agreement. Even a landlord’s or tenant’s family member can trespass if they never had a lease agreement and are not welcome in the property.
What About Holdover Tenants?
A holdover tenant is a tenant who has continued to reside in a rental property after the lease term has ended. If the tenant continues to pay rent, the tenancy essentially becomes a month-to-month tenancy. A tenant is legally allowed to stay in the rental unit as long as the landlord takes no action to remove them.
Holdover tenants are sometimes referred to as “tenants at sufferance,” meaning the tenant is only on the property because the landlord is tolerating it. In this situation, you can agree to let the tenant stay and treat them as a month-to-month tenant (also called a “tenant at will”), or treat them as a trespasser and have them removed from the premises.
A holdover tenant is not considered a squatter since the person was once legally allowed to reside in the rental unit.
How 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.
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. That means the squatter needs to actually occupy and use the property in an open and visible way that makes it clear to the owner that their property is being possessed and prevented from being occupied by another tenant. In addition, adverse possession allows for a change in ownership to occur without payment. However, this depends on how long the squatter has resided there and what your specific state laws are. An example of this would be planting a tree in a section of your lawn that connects to a neighbor’s. If you planted the tree a certain amount of time ago and your neighbor has never complained, and suddenly they do, then you may have the right to claim the land the tree is on as yours.
In most states, squatters must meet all of the following requirements to successfully take adverse possession:
- They must take actual exclusive possession of the land and its use. It can be residential or for a business.
- The use of the land must be open and obvious, meaning they can be seen using the property, not hiding in a grove of trees in one corner.
They can’t share the land with anyone else – what’s known as “exclusive possession and use.”
- They can’t be there with the owner’s permission in any way. The owner would have no knowledge of their use of the land and would oppose it if known.
- Their possession of the property must be continuous for the statutory period. In our example, this means that they used and occupied the property every day throughout the seven-year period.
Keep in mind that one squatter may pass along continuous possession to another squatter until the adverse possession period is complete. This is known as “tacking.”
The following is a breakdown of the different forms of adverse possession.
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 the 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
Exclusive and continuous possession 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.
How Long Before a Squatter Can Claim Adverse Possession?
Squatters rights vary state-by-state. Each state requires that squatters spend a different amount of time within your property before they can take possession.
Someone taking ownership of a property you own is a big deal. It doesn’t happen easily. You have to seriously ignore a property not to notice before it gets this far.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Alabama?
For a squatter to take possession of your property in Alabama, they have to have possession of a deed to the property or pay the taxes on the property for 10 years. This rule comes from Title 6 Chapter 5 Section 200 of the Code of Alabama.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Alaska?
In Alaska, there are two ways that a squatter can gain adverse possession. If your squatter has the deed to the property, they need to live in the property for seven years to take adverse possession of it, according to Alaska Statute 09.45.052. According to Alaska Statute 09.10.030, a squatter can also take ownership of your property if they’ve paid taxes on the land for the past 10 years.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Arizona?
There are three timelines for a squatter to gain ownership of your property through adverse possession.
A squatter that has the deed and has paid the taxes on your property for three or more years can take adverse possession of it, according to Arizona Revised Statute Title 12 Chapter 5 Article 2 Section 3. Unless the property is a city lot. If that is the case, the squatter needs to have the deed and pay the taxes for five years, according to Arizona Revised Statute Title 12 Chapter 5 Article 2 Section 4.
A squatter that holds the deed to your property for five years can take possession of the unit, according to Arizona Revised Statute Title 12 Chapter 5 Article 2 Section 5.
There’s a third type of adverse possession that involves property lines. This would come into play if someone on a neighboring property built something across your line of the property. After ten years, that part of the property would belong to your neighbor instead of you, according to Arizona Revised Statute Title 12 Chapter 5 Article 2 Section 2.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Arkansas?
In Arkansas, a squatter gains adverse possession of a property if they’ve held the deed to the property and paid the taxes o it for seven years, according to Arkansas Code Annotated 18-11-102.
A squatter must file for adverse possession within seven years of earning the right to unless that person is a minor. Then, they must do so within three years of turning 21, according to Arkansas Code Annotated 18-61-101.
More so, if a squatter has lived on your land for three or more years without interruption from you, then you don’t have the right to claim forcible entry or unlawful detainer, according to Arkansas Code Annotated 18-61-104.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in California?
In California, a squatter needs to pay the taxes on your property for five years to gain adverse possession, according to California Civil Procedure Code 325.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Colorado?
In Colorado, it takes 18 years for a squatter to take adverse possession of your property if they have the deed, according to Colorado Revised Statute 38-41-101.
When a squatter has paid taxes on your property for seven years they can gain adverse possession, according to Colorado Revised Statute 38-41-108.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Connecticut?
If you haven’t visited your property in Connecticut within 15 years, it could be at risk for adverse possession, according toConnecticut General Statute Annotated 52-575. Squatters who have been living there for 15 years can claim adverse possession.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Deleware?
In Deleware, it takes 20 years for a squatter to earn the right to claim adverse possession on your property, according to Deleware Code Annotated Title 10 – 7901.
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Washington D.C.?
How Does Adverse Possession Happen in Florida?
Squatters in Florida need to pay taxes on your property for seven years before they can claim adverse possession of your property, according to Florida State Annotated Statute Chapter 95.
A squatter can also gain adverse possession by possessing the deed to the property for seven years.
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.