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 an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied building (usually residential) or area of land without lawful permission. This means that they do not rent or own the property. Despite this, squatting is legal in the United States. It may be more common than you think.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense. Squatting, on the other hand, is usually civil in nature. However, squatting can be treated like a criminal behavior if the property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim a right to be on the property. They may do this by presenting false papers or fraudulent deeds to the owner or law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must fulfill the requirements for adverse possession first. If they do not meet the requirements outlined below, they can be arrested as criminal trespassing.
- Many homeless people will take advantage of squatters rights in order to gain ownership of a property without having to pay rent or a mortgage.
There are exceptions to this rule:
- If a person plants flowers, removes debris, or otherwise beautifies, they may be able to avoid prosecution for criminal trespass. This is true for both residential and industrial properties.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who accesses the property without authorization or permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use in order for squatters to begin the process of an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, also referred to as tenants at sufferance, are tenants who remain on a property after their lease has ended. They are fundamentally different from squatters and must be dealt with in a different way entirely.
In this situation, the tenant may continue to pay rent at the existing rate and terms. If the landlord chooses to accept this without worrying about the legality of the occupancy, the tenant then becomes a ‘tenant at will’. This means that they are on the property ‘at the will’ of the landlord and they can be evicted at any time without notice.
Otherwise, if a holdover tenant receives a notice to quit (or move out), they must leave or be subjected to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to make an adverse possession claim if they have been told to leave. Thereafter, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession
A squatter can claim rights to the property after a certain time residing there. In Maine, it takes 20 years of continuous possession for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (ME Tit. 14 §§ 801, et seq). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is not a criminal trespasser and has lawful permission to remain on the property.
In the US, there are five distinct legal requirements that a squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
If these five requirements are not met by the squatter, then they do not have grounds for adverse possession. Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
“Hostile” doesn’t necessarily mean violent or dangerous. In the legal sense, hostile can have three alternative definitions.
- Simple Occupation. This rule is followed by most states today. Here, ‘hostile’ is defined as the 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 is aware that his or her use of the property is trespassing. They have to know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good faith mistake. A few states choose to follow this rule instead. Here, the trespasser has to have made an innocent good faith mistake in occupying the property in the first place, such as by relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, the squatter was using the property ‘in good faith’ and was unaware of the property’s legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property and treats it as if they are an owner. This can be established by documenting beautification efforts (as mentioned above), as well as maintenance or any measures taken to clean up or maintain the property.
Open & Notorious Possession
It must be obvious to anyone – even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate – that someone is squatting on the property. The squatter must not be trying to hide the fact that they are living there.
The trespasser must possess the land exclusively. This means the trespasser cannot share possession with strangers, the owner, or other tenants or squatters.
The squatter must reside on the property for the entire 20 years required for an adverse possession claim. They cannot leave for weeks or months, return later, and then claim the time they were absent as part of their continuous possession period. The time they reside on the property must be uninterrupted.
Color of Title
During your research into squatter’s rights, you’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’. Color of title simply means that the ownership of a property is not ‘regular’. They don’t have one or more of the legal documents or proper registrations. In some states, having any sort of color of title claim can greatly help an adverse possession case. Sometimes it can even reduce the required continuous possession time period.
In Maine, having color of title won’t reduce your continuous possession time period at all. You must still reside on the property for 20 uninterrupted years. However, it can go a long way towards winning an adverse possession case.
A squatter who has won an adverse possession case would also have color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes?
In Maine, squatters are required to pay taxes on uncultivated lands in unincorporated areas. The continuous possession time is still 20 years in this instance, but they cannot claim adverse possession if they have not been paying taxes on a property that meets those requirements.
If the property does not qualify as ‘uncultivated lands in unincorporated areas’, the squatter does not have to pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim.
How to Get Rid of Squatters
Maine doesn’t have any laws specifically aimed at getting rid of squatters. To remove squatters from your property, you have to file an eviction as though they were tenants.
However, Maine does have a disability provision. If the landowner is legally “disabled” (meaning that they are underage, imprisoned, or legally incompetent), they have additional time to reclaim their property. After the disability is lifted (either by them coming of age, being released from prison, or regaining competency), they have an additional 10 years to take control of their land again, no matter whether or not the 20 years continuous possession has expired.
Note that all methods of self-eviction (including changing locks or turning off the utilities are illegal and can open a landowner up to a lawsuit. Always go through a court-based eviction process.
To begin the eviction process in Maine, you must issue an eviction notice. There are two notices generally recognized by the court: a 7-Day Notice for failure to pay rent or a 30-Day Notice for any other non-discriminatory or retaliatory reason. If you choose to use a 7-Day notice, you must include an amount that the squatter can pay if they’d like to remain on the property. Most of the time, a squatter will not pay.
After this notice has been issued and the time period has passed, the landowner can go to the courts and file a formal eviction notice. The tenant has a right to respond, and while some squatters might choose to do this in order to stay on the property longer, it is unlikely that their response will win them the case.
If the ruling is in the landowner’s favor, the courts will issue a Writ of Possession within 7 days. This means that the squatter has 7 days to vacate the premises. They must be out in 48 hours. If they remain, a sheriff’s deputy or another police officer can remove the squatters and store their belongings at the expense of the squatter.
Please note that in most cases, local law enforcement won’t be able to help you with a squatter if you don’t have a Writ of Possession. Any actions that you want to take against a squatter before receiving this Writ should be taken through the Sheriff.
Tips for Protecting Yourself From Squatters
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Secure the property (block all entrances, close every window, and lock all the doors).
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property. This is especially important if the property is currently unoccupied.
- Serve written notice as soon as you realize squatters are present.
- Offer to rent the property to squatters.
- Call the sheriff (not the local law enforcement) to remove squatters from the premises if they refuse to leave.
- Hire a lawyer. Some cases might require legal action, and having legal counsel on your side will help you take the steps you need to take.
Squatters are 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.