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 Jersey
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Serve an eviction notice
- Required Time of Occupation: 30 years of continuous occupation; 60 for woodlands or uncultivated lands
- Color of Title: Required for entire 30 years of continuous possession
- Property Taxes: Required for at least 5 years of the 30-year occupation period
Who is Considered a Squatter in New Jersey?
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 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 may be treated as a criminal offense if the landlord or owner has established that the squatter is not welcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim a right to be on the property. For example, they may use false documents or invalid deeds to convince the owner or law enforcement that they have a right to be there. This is always illegal.
- Even though squatters do have rights, if they do not fulfill the requirements for adverse possession, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Squatters can be complete strangers or even neighbors who want to obtain title of land.
There are exceptions to this rule.
- If a person beautifies an abandoned residential or industrial property, they could avoid prosecution for trespass. Beautification includes planting flowers, cleaning debris, and performing basic landscaping or maintenance.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, someone who has gained access to the property without permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property but not be in use 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.
Read more about tenants at will here.
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 in New Jersey
A squatter can claim legal rights to a property after a certain time residing there. In New Jersey, it takes 30 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to claim a residential property, and 60 years of continuous possession to claim a woodland area (NJ Rev Stat § 2A:14-30 to 32 (2016)). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they have the opportunity to gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter has lawful permission to remain on the property and is no longer a criminal trespasser.
In the U.S., 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:
- 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 on the property for 30 years or 60 years for woodlands/uncultivated lands.
If these five elements are not met along with obtaining color of title for 30 years and pay property taxes for 5 out of the 30 years, the squatter does not have grounds for adverse possession.
Let’s take a look at what each of these terms mean.
“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 must 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”.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property and treats it as if they are an owner. There are a few ways to establish this, including documenting any beautification or maintenance that the squatter performs. Planting flowers or cleaning debris (as mentioned above) is an example of actual possession of the land.
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. That means that the trespasser cannot give up the use of the property, return to it later, and try to count the time the property was abandoned as part of the “continuous” possession time period. As stated previously, 30 years of continuous possession is required for residential areas and 60 years is required for woodland areas in New Jersey.
Color of Title
You’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’ during your research about squatter’s rights. Color of title simply means that the ownership of the property is not ‘regular’. The property’s owner doesn’t have one or more of the legal documents, memorial, or registrations that might otherwise be required.
In New Jersey, color of title is required for the entire 30 years of continuous possession required to make an adverse possession claim. After completing an adverse possession claim, a squatter will be able to claim color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in New Jersey?
In New Jersey, squatters do have to pay property taxes. Property taxes are required for at least five (5) consecutive years of the 30/60-year continuous occupation period to be considered for adverse possession.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in New Jersey
In New Jersey, there are no specific laws to remove squatters. Landowners and landlords must use the legal eviction process to get squatters off of their properties here.
There is, however, a provision in place for disabled landowners. If someone who owns the land has a disability (either they are a minor, legally incompetent, or imprisoned), they have additional time to reclaim their land. After the disability is lifted (either they come of age, become competent, or are released from prison), they have 5 years to reclaim their property.
Otherwise, a landowner will need to start the formal legal eviction process to remove squatters from the property. The process begins with the landlord serving an eviction notice. If the squatter is being disorderly and ruining the peaceful enjoyment of the premises, causing property damage or involved in illegal activity, a landowner can issue a 3-Day Notice to Quit before filing an eviction suit.
If there is no damage or harm from the squatter, there may be no notice necessary. New Jersey allows landowners to immediately file an eviction if a tenant fails to pay rent, and this applies to squatters as well.
The squatter might choose to fight the eviction to stay on the property longer. Unless they have a strong case for remaining on the property, the judgment will usually be in favor of the landowner. If an eviction is granted by the court, a warrant for removal shall be issued to the squatter by the sheriff. This allows the squatter 3 business days to remove their belongings before a Special Civil Part Officer returns to the property to forcibly remove them.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner cannot remove the squatter from the property themselves. Any measure that they take to make the squatter leave – including turning off the utilities or changing the locks – can open them up to a lawsuit for damages. Instead, the landowner must wait until a law enforcement officer comes to remove the squatter from the property.
Sometimes, squatters will leave personal property behind. In New Jersey, a landowner must send notice to the squatter that they have 30 days after the delivery of notice (or 33 days after the date of mailing the notice) to retrieve their personal property from the landlord or storage facility where it is being kept. If they don’t come get their belongings within those (30 (or 33 days), the landlord can sell or dispose of the belongings as they see fit. The squatter can also be held accountable for the storage costs.
Please note that when dealing with a squatting situation, local law enforcement may not be able to help. The sheriff is more likely to be able to help with squatter situations if it isn’t a trespassing situation.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in New Jersey
- 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.
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- 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 New Jersey Statutes 2A §14-30 to 32 and 62-2 for more information.