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 New Hampshire
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Legal “disability” provision; standard legal eviction
- Required Time of Occupation: 20 years’ continuous occupation
- Color of Title: Not required, but can help speed up claim process
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in New Hampshire?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, unoccupied, or foreclosed building or area of land without lawful permission. This means that the person does not rent or own the property, and they do not have the permission of the owner to be there. Despite this, squatting is quite common and actually legal in the United States.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, while squatting is usually a civil matter. However, squatting can be treated as a criminal behavior if the landlord or property owner has established that the individual in question is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim a right to be on the property. They can do this by presenting false documents or invalid deeds to law enforcement or property owners. This is always illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but if they do not fulfill the requirements for adverse possession they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Many homeless people may try to 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 land (by planting flowers, removing debris, landscaping, etc) they might be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who accessed the property without authorization 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 or tenants at sufferance are tenants who stay on a property after their lease has ended. In this situation, the tenant is responsible for paying rent at the existing rate and terms. If the landlord chooses to accept this, they can do so without admitting the legality of the occupancy.
If the landlord does choose to continue accepting rent, the tenant becomes a tenant at will—meaning that the tenant is on the property “at the landlord’s will” and can be evicted at any time without notice.
If the landlord instead issues a notice to quit (or move out), the tenant can be subject to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to make an adverse possession claim if they have already been told to leave. They will be considered a criminal trespasser at this point.
Understanding Adverse Possession in New Hampshire
A squatter can claim rights to the property after a certain time of residing there. In New Hampshire, it takes 20 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § § 508:2,3). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is no longer considered a criminal trespasser and haw 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 these five elements are not met, the squatter does 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 has three definitions that states may choose to use.
- 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. Using this rule, the trespasser must be aware that their use of the property amounts to trespassing. They have to know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good faith mistake. A few states follow this additional rule. This requires that the trespasser has made an innocent good faith mistake in occupying the property in the first place. They may be relying on an invalid or incorrect deed, but they believe that they belong there without any knowledge of the property’s legal status. They are using the property “in good faith”.
The actual possession requirement means that the trespasser must be physically present on the property and treat it as if they were an owner. Beautification efforts (as mentioned above) are one way to document the actual possession of the property.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & Notorious” means that it must be obvious to anyone that someone is squatting on the property. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate must be able to tell that a squatter is living on the property. The squatter must not be trying to hide that they are staying there.
The trespasser must be the only one possessing the land. They cannot share possession with other squatters, the owner, other tenants, or strangers.
The squatter must reside on the property for an uninterrupted amount of time. This means that they cannot give up the use of the property for weeks, months, or any other length of time and then return to it later, seeking to use the time they were gone as part of the “continuous possession” time period. As stated previously, 20 years of continuous occupation are required for adverse possession claims in New Hampshire.
Color of Title
You may have come across the term ‘color of title’ while doing research into squatter’s rights. Color of title is simply ownership of a property that isn’t ‘regular’, such as not having one or more of the legal memorials or documents registered, or not properly registered. Some states require color of title to claim adverse possession, but New Hampshire isn’t one of them.
If a squatter does have color of title, it can help their adverse possession claim. It won’t reduce the 20 years required continuous possession time, though.
After successfully completing an adverse possession claim, a squatter may claim color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in New Hampshire?
While most states have some sort of provision for squatters who pay property taxes, New Hampshire doesn’t. Squatters are not required to pay property taxes on the property or building they are occupying in order to claim adverse possession in this state.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in New Hampshire
In New Hampshire, there are no laws specifically for getting rid of squatters. They must be evicted through the standard legal eviction process.
However, there is a provision for landowners with disabilities. If a landowner has a legal disability, such as being underage, imprisoned, or legally incompetent, they have additional time to reclaim their property from squatters. A property owned by a disabled person cannot be claimed via adverse possession until 5 years after the disability is lifted (either they come of age, are released from prison, or regain competency).
The judicial eviction process begins by sending an eviction notice to the squatters. There are two different notices that can work for your evictions in New Hampshire:
- Seven-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. With this notice, the squatters have seven days to pay the amount that you set forth in order to remain on the property. After these seven days have passed without payment (and most squatters won’t pay), you can file the eviction lawsuit.
- Seven-Day Unconditional Quit Notice. This notice can be used if the squatter causes harm to tenants or the landlord, or if they destroy the property. If they don’t move out after seven days, you can file the eviction lawsuit.
The squatter may choose to fight the eviction in order to gain more time on the property, and this can lead to a drawn-out legal battle. However, if the ruling is in favor of the landlord (and most will be), they cannot remove the squatter from the property on their own.
Any measure that a landowner takes to force a squatter to leave (including turning off utilities and changing the locks) is illegal, even after an eviction. Instead, landowners must wait until a law enforcement officer escorts the squatter off of the property.
If the squatter has left behind any personal property, the landowner must store it for seven days at their own expense. If the squatter doesn’t claim the property within those seven days, the landlord can dispose of the property however they see fit without sending a notice.
When dealing with squatters, you should always call the sheriff rather than the local police. The local police may be able to help with a criminal trespasser, but they do not have the jurisdiction to interfere with squatting situations.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters
- Inspect the property regularly
- Secure the property (make sure all entrances are blocked, doors and windows are locked, etc)
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it is 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 police) to help remove squatters from the premises if they do not leave
- Hire a lawyer – you may need to proceed with a lawsuit to remove the squatters and having the right legal counsel can help
It’s important to arm yourself with the right legal knowledge to prevent someone from making an adverse possession claim on your property. Make sure you refer to the New Hampshire Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 508:2, 3 for more information.