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.
Quick Facts for Colorado
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Sign a special document
- Required Time of Occupation: 18 years; 7 with color of title & paid property taxes
- Color of Title: Not required
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Colorado?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied residential building. Cases of squatters in commercial buildings are rare, but they do occur. The squatter occupies the building or area of land without the legal permission of the owner. This means that they don’t rent or own the property.
Still, squatting in the United States is a common and legal occurrence.
Isn’t That Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal matter, whereas squatting is usually civil in nature. However, if the rightful owner or landlord of the property has established that the person in question is unwelcome, squatting can be treated as criminal behavior.
Keep the following in mind.
- Colorado has some of the most forgiving laws for squatters in the United States. The law is not extensive, but it does give squatters a lot of rights and makes it even more difficult to remove them.
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim that they have a right to be on the property, either by presenting fraudulent papers or false proof of their rights. This is always illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must fulfill certain requirements to legally remain on the property. If they do not fulfill these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
There are exceptions to this rule.
- If a person beautifies the property (either by planting flowers, cleaning up, removing debris or doing other maintenance or landscaping), they may be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing. Usually, this only applies to unoccupied and abandoned properties.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gains access to the property without permission may be excused from trespassing.
- The property cannot be in use or occupied by other parties for the squatters to being the process of filing an adverse possession claim.
- This does not apply to any land in Colorado owned by the state, county, public, municipal, city and county, city, irrigation district, quasi-municipal corporation or department or agency.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, also referred to as tenants at sufferance, are tenants who choose to remain on the property after the lease has ended. In this instance, the tenant is responsible for continuing to pay rent at the existing rate and on existing terms. The landlord may choose to accept this without concern for the legality of the occupation.
However, if a holdover tenant doesn’t leave after they have received a notice to quit (or move out), they can be subject to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. If they have already been asked to leave, a tenant cannot claim adverse possession. At this point, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
If the landlord continues to accept rent from the holdover tenant, they become a “tenant at-will”. That means that they remain on the property at the will of the landlord and can be evicted at any time without notice.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Colorado
After a certain amount of time residing on a property, a squatter can claim ownership. In Colorado, a squatter must continuously and openly possess a property for 18 years before they can claim adverse possession (CRS § 38-41-101 et seq). This can be shortened to 7 years if the squatter has been paying taxes and has color of title.
When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is no longer a criminal trespasser and has permission by law to remain on the property.
In the US, there are five distinct legal requirements that the squatter must meet before they can claim adverse possession. The occupation must be:
- Hostile – without permission and against the right of the true owner.
- Actual – exercising control over the real property.
- Open & Notorious – using the property as the owner would and not hiding his/her occupancy.
- Exclusive – in the possession of the individual occupying the real property alone.
- Continuous – staying and paying taxes on the property for 7 or 18 years.
If these five elements are not fulfilled by the squatter, they don’t have grounds for adverse possession. Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
In this sense, “hostile” doesn’t mean violent or dangerous. There are three definitions of a ‘hostile claim’ in regard to adverse possession.
- Simple Occupation. This rule is followed by most states. It defines a hostile claim as one that goes against the interests of the owner. The trespasser may or may not know that the land belongs to someone else, but the fact that they are occupying the land is enough to fit this claim.
- Awareness of Trespassing. With this definition, the trespasser must be aware that his or her use of the property is trespassing (meaning that they know they have no legal right to the property).
- Good faith mistake. The third definition of ‘hostile’ means that the trespasser has made an innocent error in assuming that they have a right to occupy the land. This could be a reliance on an invalid or incorrect deed that they thought was valid. In Colorado the squatter must be using the property “in good faith” and is unaware of the property’s legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser possesses the property. This means that they are physically present and treat the property as though they are the owner. This can be established by presenting proof of efforts to make improvements or beautify the property (as listed above).
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & Notorious” means that anyone must be able to tell that someone is squatting on the property. This includes any property owner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate. Basically, this means that the squatter isn’t trying to hide that they live there.
The squatter or trespasser must not share possession of the land in question with other tenants, owners, or squatters. They must be using the property exclusively.
The squatter has to reside on the property for an uninterrupted amount of time. In Colorado, it’s required for the squatter to occupy the property
Each time the squatter leaves the property for long enough for it to be considered ‘abandoned’, this time period begins again. Without this continuous occupation, they cannot claim adverse possession.
Color of Title
When looking up squatter’s rights in Colorado, you have probably encountered the term ‘color of title’. This is particularly important in Colorado, as having it means that the continuous occupation time to file an adverse possession claim is greatly reduced.
In Colorado, color of title must be a written document. This document must show a good faith belief that the squatter has some claim to the land, even if it isn’t a legal document.
An example of color of title in Colorado would be a hand-written and signed document from an ancestor that documents property changing hands. With color of title (and property taxes paid), a squatter must only remain on a property for a total of 7 years before they can claim adverse possession rather than the usual 18.
After successfully completing an adverse possession claim, a squatter can claim color of title. If the possession is acquired without a title, then the squatter will only have rights to the area of land put forth in the color of title document – and therefore, only the land they have occupied.
In Colorado, it is not required for a squatter to pay property taxes to claim adverse possession. However, if they do pay taxes on the property and have a color of title claim, the time of continuous occupation is decreased from 18 years to 7 years.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Colorado
In Colorado, you have a few options when it comes to removing squatters from your properties. As stated above, squatters are required to have lived on the property for a period of 18 years before they can claim the property, especially if you are the one paying the property taxes. To make sure that they cannot claim your property in 7 years, always make sure that you are paying your own taxes.
There is a provision for landowners with disabilities, though. If the landowner has a legal disability (meaning that they are either a minor, legally incompetent, or imprisoned), they can defend their land for longer. In Colorado, a landowner with a disability has 2 years after the removal of the disability (either they come of age, regain sanity, or are released from prison) to assert their right to their land.
Prior to Bill SB 18-015 entering state law in 2018, getting rid of squatters was significantly more difficult in Colorado. However, the introduction of this bill allowed for quicker removal of squatters.
Made to protect landowners on extended vacations and military deployments (though not exclusive to those circumstances), this bill allows the landowner to have squatters removed simply by signing a document.
This document is signed under penalty of perjury, meaning that if it is falsely signed, the landowner can be sued. Essentially, this document alerts the police that the squatters are there without permission. What if the squatters have documentation, either fraudulent or through a “good faith” mistake?
This bill requires landowners to tell the police that there is no legal or valid reason for the squatters to be there, regardless of any documentation that is presented to them. This means that if the squatters sue the police or have a valid color of title, the landowner is responsible for the mistake and will be charged for the lawsuit.
With this document in hand, police have the legal power to remove the squatters within 24 hours. They cannot arrest them, but they can order them to stay away or they will be sued for criminal trespass.
Other provisions of this bill are that the police can arrest squatters who have damaged the property immediately and charge them with a Class 1 misdemeanor. However, they have to provide the squatter with a reasonable opportunity to secure and present credible evidence that they can remain on the property.
With this bill in place, landowners in Colorado don’t have to go through an eviction process to get rid of squatters any longer. However, they are more culpable for damages caused by a mistaken arrest or accusation.
If you are having a problem with criminal trespassers, the police can help immediately. However, for squatters, holdover tenants, and other issues, you should always contact the sheriff to help you get rid of the offenders.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Colorado
- If you are going on vacation or being deployed, make sure that you have someone keep an eye on your property.
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Secure the property by blocking all entrances and locking all doors and windows.
- Pay property taxes on time.
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it isn’t currently occupied.
- Serve written notice as soon as you realize that there are squatters present.
- Offer to rent the property to squatters, if possible.
- Call the sheriff (not the local police) to remove squatters from the premises if they do not leave.
- Hire a lawyer in case you need to take legal action to have squatters removed from the premises.
Squatters have different rights in different states. Make sure you refer to Colorado Revised Statutes Title 38 Property Real and Personal § 38-41-101 for more information.