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 is Considered a Squatter?
A squatter is someone who occupies a foreclosed, abandoned, or unoccupied building or area of land without the rightful owner’s permission. Sometimes there isn’t a rightful owner, but a squatter is defined as someone who stays on a property they do not own or rent. Despite the fact that squatting without lawful permission can be a problem, it’s actually legal in some cases and can be commonly observed with residential buildings.
Isn’t That Trespassing?
Squatting and trespassing are not necessarily the same time. Trespassing is, first and foremost, a criminal offense. Squatting is more of a civil matter. However, if the property owner manages to establish that the squatting party or parties are not welcome on the property, it can be treated as criminal behavior.
Keep the following in mind:
- In Alabama, it’s difficult for squatters to get rights to a property. That means that property owners have a much better chance of getting their property back than in some other states. In fact, Alabama doesn’t recognize ‘squatters’ at all but defers to adverse possession laws.
- It’s illegal for squatters or trespassers to falsely claim that they have a right to occupy the property. If they attempt to prove their right to be there with fraudulent papers or claims, the landowner has a right to take legal action.
- Further, squatters must fulfill the adverse possession requirements to legally remain on the property. If these requirements (outlined below) are not met, the landowner can have them arrested for trespassing.
- Many people attempt to take advantage of squatter’s rights in order to gain ownership without rent or mortgage concerns.
There are a few exceptions to these rules that are universally true.
- The squatter may avoid trespassing chargers if they have ‘beautifed’ the property. This includes planting flowers, cleaning up debris and maintaining the yard, or performing other beneficial work.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, someone who has gained access to the property or land without permission may not be legally trespassing.
- In order for an adverse possession claim to be filed, the property must not be in use by anyone other than the squatting parties.
When is a Property Considered Abandoned?
Squatters often attempt to reside in an abandoned property. A property is considered abandoned in Alabama when the property taxes haven’t been paid for one year or more. Separate municipalities may have additional requirements within the state.
What About Holdover Tenants?
If a tenant remains on the property after their lease has ended are referred to as holdover tenants or tenants at sufferance. A holdover tenant must continue to pay rent at the existing rate and on the existing terms so long as the landlord accepts it.
However, if the landlord tells the tenant to leave the property (move out or ‘notice to quit) they can be subject to legal action. This is called an unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant won’t be able to claim adverse possession if they have received a notice and have been told to leave. At this point, they become trespassers and are committing a criminal offense.
The landlord may continue to accept rent without asking for the tenant to leave. At this point, the tenant becomes a tenant at will. This means that the landlord may ask the tenant to leave at any time without notice, as they are on the property “at the will” of the landlord.
Understanding Adverse Possession
Adverse possession laws were put in place to protect land in the US. This fairly old legislation was enacted for the benefit of the land, and it essentially means that if the current owner is not using the land, someone who can use it may present a claim.
In Alabama, a tenant can make an adverse possession claim if they have occupied the land or building for 20 continuous years (AL Code § 6-5-200; Bradley v. Demos 599 So.2d 1148 (2017)). If they’ve paid property taxes for the land for at least ten years, they are also eligible to submit a claim.
But that’s just one of the adverse possession requirements. In the US, there five universal and distinct requirements that must be met before a squatter can make a legal adverse possession claim. Occupation of the property must be:
- Open & Notorious
In the case that the squatter does not meet these five requirements, they cannot make an adverse possession claim. Let’s look at what each of these requirements means.
In this sense, “hostile” is a legal term. It doesn’t mean that there is any aggression or violence in the way that they claimed the property. Here are the three definitions of a ‘hostile’ claim:
- Simple occupation. Most states follow this rule. Here, ‘hostile’ is defined as just occupying the land, either with or without the knowledge that the land belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of trespassing. Here, the trespasser is aware that their occupation of the location is trespassing and that they have no legal right to the property.
- Good faith mistake. Alabama is one of many states that follow this rule. This means that the trespasser has made an honest mistake in occupying the property. This could mean that they were relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. The trespasser is unaware of the property’s actual legal status in this case.
The beautification rule that we mentioned earlier is part of actual possession. This means that the trespasser is physically present on the property and treats it as if they are an owner. This can be proved by providing documentation of efforts made to maintain or improve the property, which includes landscaping and cleaning, as we mentioned before.
Open & Notorious
“Open and notorious” possession requires that the squatter or trespasser is making it obvious that they are occupying the property. They aren’t trying to hide the fact that they are staying there. This requirement can even be met if the property owner makes an effort to investigate because they are suspicious that someone might be trespassing.
This means that the trespasser or squatter must be the sole inhabitant of the property. They cannot share their possession with others, including strangers, the owner, or other tenants.
The squatter must be in possession of the land for a certain period of time in order for an adverse possession claim to be valid. In Alabama, a squatter must have occupied the property for 20 consecutive years for their claim to be valid, as we previously stated. If they have been paying property taxes, this is lowered to 10 consecutive years.
Color of Title
“Color of Title” is a common term when it comes to adverse possession and squatters rights. Color of title can be the end result of an adverse possession claim. When the squatter or trespasser gains ownership of the property, they have color of title. This means they didn’t come to own the property through “regular” means and therefore don’t have one or more of the proper documents for ownership.
There are select circumstances when someone can come into the possession of a location without color of title. In this case, the squatter will only have rights to the land they actually possess. They are not entitled to the entire property, in this case, just the portion that they’ve occupied.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes?
In Alabama, squatters are not required to show proof that they have paid their property taxes to gain ownership of the property through adverse possession. If they have been living on the property and maintaining it for a period of at least 20 years, this isn’t required.
This period can be shortened to 10 years if the squatter can prove that they’ve been paying property taxes for those 10 consecutive years. While this isn’t required, squatters will have a much easier time gaining property ownership with this proof.
How to Get Rid of Squatters
The state of Alabama makes it easier for property owners to get rid of squatters than most other states do. There are very few complications that can arise legally.
To be able to remove squatters from the property, a landlord or landowner can either go through an eviction process to reclassify the squatters as tenants.
The Alabama eviction procedure does not specify if there are any special measures for squatters. Instead, you must treat them as tenants and follow the eviction process. The tenant eviction process is as follows:
- The landlord must have legal cause for eviction, which is specified as non-payment of rent, violation of rental agreement or lease, and illegal activities.
- The landlord or landowner must send the squatter an eviction notice. It is required that these notices give the squatters 7 days to vacate the premises. There is also an option called the Seven-Day Notice to Remedy, which informs the squatter that they have seven days to remedy the situation or they will be subject to eviction. (AL Code § 35-9A-421).
- If the squatter refuses to leave after the 7 days are up, the landlord must file an eviction action with the court.
While this process may seem unfair to a landlord or landowner, going through these steps will stop a squatter from attempting to make an adverse possession claim. That’s because treating the squatter like a tenant removes the ‘hostile’ condition of the adverse possession guideline.
Here are some additional steps you can take to have squatters removed from your premesis.
- File a repossession claim with the court. This asks them to establish the legal ownership of the property. Once ownership is established, the landlord can begin shutting off the utilities. This is important because some squatters will have utilities turned on at the property in their names without the landowner’s knowledge.
- Exercise extreme caution when having utilities turned off. Some squatters will use this as an excuse to ruin the property or continue to use plumbing and other facilities when they aren’t working. This can lead to more cleanup and loss on the part of the landowner or landlord.
- Remember to always call the sheriff, not the police to remove the squatter from the proprety. The difference between the sheriff and the police may be purely jurisdictional, but it’s important to know who to call. Unless the landlord is absolutely certain that there is a criminal trespasser on the property, the local police will not help you.
- Trespassers can be immediately removed, but squatters can’t – that’s why you need to call the sheriff rather than the local police.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters
- Inspect the property regularly
- Make sure that the property is secured. If you know you’re going to be gone for a while, make sure that every entrance is blocked, windows are closed, and all doors are locked.
- Put “No Trespassing” signs up on the property, especially if it is currently unoccupied
- As soon as you realize squatters are present on your property, serve written notice
- Offer to rent the property to the squatters
- Call the sheriff (not the police) to remove squatters from your property if they refuse to leave
- Hire a lawyer in case you need to file a lawsuit to remove squatters from your property
Squatters and trespassers can be a landlord’s worst nightmare. Arming yourself with the right legal knowledge is crucial to defending yourself against adverse possession claims on your property.