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 chooses to occupy a foreclosed, abandoned, or unoccupied building (usually residential) or area of land without lawful permission. This means that the person doesn’t own or rent the property. Even so, squatting is legal and quite common in the United States.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting isn’t necessarily trespassing. While trespassing is a criminal offense, squatting is usually a civil matter. However, once the landlord or property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome, it can be treated like a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim a right to be on the property. They may accomplish this by presenting false or fraudulent paperwork or documents to the owner or law enforcement. This is always illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but if they don’t meet the requirements for adverse possession, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Many homeless people take advantage of squatters rights to gain ownership of a property without paying rent or mortgage.
There are exceptions to the rule:
- If a person beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (by removing debris, planting flowers, or making other improvements), they could possibly avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gains access to the property without permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must be unused for squatters to begin the process of an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, otherwise known as ‘tenants at sufferance’, are tenants who refuse to leave the property when their lease has ended. In this situation, the tenant is responsible for continuing to pay rent at the existing rate and with the existing terms.
If the landlord chooses, they can continue to accept the rent without worrying about the legality of the occupancy. In this case, the tenant becomes a ‘tenant at will’. This means that they are only on the property at the landlord’s will. They can be evicted at any time without notice.
However, if a holdover tenant refuses to leave after receiving a notice to quit (move out), they will be subject to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to claim adverse possession if they have already been asked to leave the property. At this point, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession
Adverse possession in Louisiana is referred to in the law as ‘acquisitive prescription’. Hereafter, these terms will be used interchangeably. This follows most of the same rules as adverse possession in most other states. In Louisiana, a squatter must possess the land continuously for a period of 30 years before they can make an adverse possession claim (LA Civ Code 742 (2018)).
When a squatter claims acquisitive prescription, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is no longer considered a criminal trespasser. They have lawful permission to remain on the property.
In the US, there are five distinct legal requirements that must be met by the squatter before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
If the squatters do not meet these five requirements, they do not have the grounds for adverse possession. Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
“Hostile” doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous or violent. In the legal sense, hostile has three definitions.
- Simple occupation. This rule is followed by most states today. It defines ‘hostile’ as a mere occupation of the land. The trespasser doesn’t have to know that the land belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of trespassing. This rule requires that the trespasser be aware that their use of the land or building is trespassing. They have to know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good faith mistake. Many states have a provision for squatters to believe that they do have a legal right to be on the property. This requires that the squatter make a good faith mistake in occupying the property, most often by relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, they are unaware of the property’s current legal status and are using the property “in good faith”.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser by physically present and using the land as if they were an owner. This can be proven by documenting any efforts on the part of the squatter to beautify the land (planting flowers, as mentioned beforehand), clean up the property, or maintain it.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open and Notorious” means that it has to be obvious to anyone that someone is squatting on the property. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that the squatter is there. They must not be attempting to hide that they are living there.
The trespasser must be the only one possessing the land. They cannot share occupation with other tenants, the landlord, or even other squatters.
The squatter must reside on the land for a period of 30 consecutive years in the state of Louisiana. They cannot leave for a number of weeks or years and then claim that time as part of their continuous possession. The only way that this 30 year period is reduced is if the squatter has color of title.
Color of Title
You’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’ while researching squatter’s rights and the associated laws. In some states, this is an important aspect of adverse possession, and though it takes a much smaller role in Louisiana, there is a precedent for it.
Essentially, color of title means that someone has gained ownership of the property with it being ‘regular’. Most often, this means that they are missing one or more documents or legal memorials, or the property is not registered properly.
In Louisiana, if a squatter has a valid color of title claim, they must only possess the land for 10 years rather than the normal 30 required without title.
A squatter may also claim color of title after completing a successful adverse possession claim.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes?
Some states do require squatters to pay property taxes. However, Louisiana isn’t one of them. You can make an adverse possession claim without having to pay property taxes.
The only benefit to paying property taxes for a squatter is that they might have a better chance of succeeding at an adverse possession claim. In some states, it can also decrease the required continuous possession time, but that is not the case in Louisiana.
How to Get Rid of Squatters
Louisiana doesn’t have any special laws when it comes to getting rid of squatters. In most cases, you will have to evict squatters as if they are tenants in order to have them removed, especially if they present false papers to law enforcement.
There are also no disability considerations in Louisiana law. No matter the legal ‘disability’ or status of the landlord, a squatter may still be able to claim adverse possession on a building or plot of land.
To begin the eviction process, you must first serve the squatter with a five-day notice to vacate. While other states have different types of eviction notices (and some even allow the tenant some time to fix violations or pay rent), Louisiana is firm on this. After five days, if the tenant or squatter hasn’t left, the landlord can file an eviction notice.
The squatter may choose to dispute the eviction, though in most cases they won’t have the grounds to do so. For squatter evictions, the ruling is almost always in favor of the landowner.
It is illegal to perform self-eviction procedures in Louisiana. This means that you cannot attempt to remove the squatter by force, or through methods such as changing the locks or turning off the utilities. This is always illegal and can leave a landowner open to a lawsuit.
After a successful eviction, a law enforcement officer will be able to remove the squatter from the property. If they leave behind any property, the landowner should store it and attempt to contact the person to return it. After a reasonable amount of time, the landlord may dispose of the property as they see fit.
Please note that only a sheriff can help with a squatter situation. Local law enforcement may be able to remove a criminal trespasser, but they do not have the same jurisdiction as a sheriff. Do not call the local law enforcement if you find a squatter on your property, as they may not be able to help.
Tips for Protecting Yourself From Squatters
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Make sure that the property is secured. Block all entrances, close all windows, and lock every door.
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it’s currently unoccupied.
- Serve written notice as soon as you realize squatters 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. You may need to take legal action to get the squatters to leave, and having the correct legal advice at every step of the journey is key.
Squatters can be a landlord’s worst nightmare. Make sure that you arm yourself with the right legal knowledge to prevent someone from making an adverse possession claim on your property.