Who is Considered a Squatter in Florida?
A squatter is someone who chooses to occupy a foreclosed, abandoned, or otherwise unoccupied building (usually residential) or area of land without lawful permission. This means that they do not own the property and are not renting it. Despite this, squatting in the United States is a common occurrence, and it can be legal!
Isn’t That Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, while squatting is usually a civil matter. However, if the landlord or property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome, squatting can be treated as a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind.
- In Florida, a squatter can be charged with trespassing if they attempt to prove that they have a claim to the property through adverse possession before a claim has been properly filed. To avoid this, they must also be paying taxes on the property or improving/cultivating it.
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim that they have a right to be on the property. Some may present false or fraudulent papers to do so. This is illegal.
- Even though squatters do have rights, they must fulfill the requirements for adverse possession. If they don’t, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers (this is very clear in Florida law).
- Some homeless people will take advantage of squatter’s rights to gain ownership of a property without having to pay rent or a mortgage.
There are exceptions to the rule:
- If a person beautifies the property (landscaping, improving, or cultivating it), they might be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing. This is especially true in Florida, where cultivation or improvement is a requirement for adverse possession.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gained access to the property without permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- In order for squatters to begin an adverse possession claim, the property must be unused, unoccupied, or abandoned.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, or tenants at sufferance, are tenants who choose to remain on the property after their lease has ended. In this situation, the tenant must continue to pay the rent at the existing rate and terms. The landlord may accept this without questioning the occupancy.
However, if the landlord issues a notice to quit (or move out), a tenant that refuses to leave can be subjected to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant who has been asked to leave will not be able to make an adverse possession claim. At this point, they are a criminal trespasser.
If a landlord continues to accept rent from the tenant and doesn’t issue a notice, they become a tenant at will. This means that they are on the property ‘at the will’ of the landlord, and they may be evicted at any time without notice.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Florida
A squatter can claim the rights to a property after they live there for a certain amount of time. In Florida, it takes at least 7 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (Fla. Stat. Ann. § 95.19). By law, they also must either have color of title (which we will discuss later) or be paying property taxes to file a valid adverse possession claim.
When a squatter claims adverse possession, they have the opportunity to gain legal ownership fo the property. At this point, the squatter isn’t a criminal trespasser any long and has legal permission to remain on the property.
In the US, there are five distinct legal requirements that a squatter must meet before an adverse possession claim can be made. In Florida, there is an additional requirement. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
- Made with Color of Title or Payment of Taxes
If these six elements are not met by the squatter, then they will not have grounds for adverse possession. Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
In the legal sense used here, ‘hostile’ does not mean violent or dangerous, or that the squatter broke into your home or property with violent intentions. Instead, this relies on three different definitions:
- Simple Occupation. Most states go by this rule. Here, ‘hostile’ is defined as the mere occupation fo the land. The trespasser doesn’t have to know that the land belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of Trespassing. This alternate rule requires that the trespasser be aware that their use of the land or building amounts to trespassing. They must know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good Faith Mistake. This special rule is only active in some states. It’s a provision put in place in case the trespasser has made an honest mistake in occupying the property in the first place. They may be relying on an invalid or incorrect deed, or have other reasons to believe that the land is theirs to occupy. This means that they are using the property ‘in good faith’ and are unaware of the property’s legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser actually possess the property. They must be physically present and treat the land as if they were an owner. This can be established by documenting the trespasser’s efforts to maintain and make improvements to the property. In Florida, cultivation and/or improvements are required in order to make a valid adverse possession claim, so this is even more important in this state.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & Notorious” means that it has to be obvious to anyone – even an observant property owner – that someone is squatting on the property. The squatter must not be trying to hide the fact that they live there.
The trespasser must be the only one possessing or occupying the land. This means that they cannot share the land with strangers, the owners, or other tenants.
The squatter must also reside on the property for an uninterrupted amount of time. As stated above, in Florida this is 7 years of continuous possession. The squatter cannot leave the property abandoned, return weeks or years later, and then claim that they have lived there the entire time.
Color of Title
You’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’ in your search for squatter’s rights information. In Florida, it’s one of two alternate additional requirements to claim adverse possession. But what does it mean?
To have color of title is to have ownership of a property without it being ‘regular’. This can mean that there is no proper registration or that the owner is missing one or more pertinent legal documents. Color of title can also be claimed if the squatter successfully completes an adverse possession claim.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Florida?
In Florida, the short answer is yes. Paying property taxes is one of the alternative additional requirements to claim adverse possession. If a squatter doesn’t have a claim to the property like color of title, they must have paid property taxes there for 7 continuous years to claim adverse possession. This comes in addition to the five main requirements that all states use.
By making sure that you keep up with your own property taxes, you can help prevent squatters from making an adverse possession claim on your land.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Florida
Unlike some other states, Florida does not have specific laws for getting rid of squatters. To have squatters removed from your property once they have begun living there, you must go through an eviction process.
It is of the utmost importance that you serve an eviction notice as soon as possible. If an eviction has been filed, it will take a lot of work and proof for a squatter to gain ownership of your property.
There are three different types of eviction notices in Florida:
- 3-Day Notice to Quit or Pay. This notice gives the tenant three days to pay rent or leave. You must include the amount of past-due rent and fees in the notice. If the squatter doesn’t pay the amount within the 3-day period, an eviction lawsuit can be filed against them.
- 7-Day Notice to Cure. This might not be your best option when you are attempting to evict a tenant. Still, it might work in your favor in specific circumstances. This notice can be served if the tenant has violated the lease or rental agreement, and gives them a chance to correct it before an eviction is filed.
- 7-Day Unconditional Quit Notice. With this notice, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit with 7-day notice, without giving the tenant any time to fix the situation. This is applicable if the property is intentionally destroyed by the tenant, if they are creating an unreasonable disturbance, or if they have repeatedly violated the lease in the last year.
After an eviction is filed, it usually takes a few weeks to resolve. If the tenant or squatter chooses to fight the eviction, it can take longer. Still, if the squatter has no valid claim to the land, it will probably be ruled in favor of the landlord.
Even so, landlords cannot self-evict. Even with a successful eviction, the only person who can legally remove a squatter from the property is a sheriff or constable.
If the squatter leaves personal property behind when they are removed, the landlord must give them between 10-15 days to claim the property, depending on how the eviction notice was delivered. After that time, the landlord can sell or dispose of the property.
Getting rid of squatters can be a pain, so it’s in your best interest as a landowner or landlord to protect yourself from squatters however possible.
Tips for Protecting Yourself From Squatters in Florida
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Always pay your own property taxes.
- Make sure that the property is secured by blocking all entrances, closing all doors, and ensuring that all windows and doors are locked.
- Put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs on the property, especially if it is unoccupied.
- Serve squatters with written notice as soon as you realize they are present.
- Offer to rent the property to the squatters.
- 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 file an eviction lawsuit or take other legal action. It’s also a good idea to have some legal counsel when dealing with squatters.
Squatters moving onto your property can be the landlord’s worst nightmare. Make sure that you have the right legal knowledge to arm yourself against squatters and avoid adverse possession claims on your property.