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 North Carolina
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction process
- Required Time of Occupation: 20 years of continuous occupation
- Color of Title: Not required to make a claim, but may strengthen case
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in North Carolina?
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 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.
- Many homeless people attempt to take advantage of squatter’s rights laws so that they can gain legal ownership of the property without paying rent or a mortgage.
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 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 in North Carolina
A squatter can claim rights to a property after residing there for a certain amount of time. In North Carolina, it takes 20 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-38, et seq; 1-17 (2015)). When a squatter makes an adverse possession claim, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is no longer a criminal trespasser and has 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.
A 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 that the property was abandoned as part of the “continuous” possession time period. As stated previously, 20 years of continuous possession are required for adverse possession in North Carolina.
Color of Title
You may have come across the term ‘color of title’ in your research into squatter’s rights. Essentially ‘color of title’ means that the ownership of a property is not ‘regular’, One ore more of the correct legal documents, memorials, or registrations is missing. In some states, this is a requirement for adverse possession.
This isn’t the case in North Carolina. While having color of title can strengthen an adverse possession case, it isn’t required to make a claim.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in North Carolina?
In some states, the payment of property taxes is a requirement to make an adverse possession claim. That isn’t the case in North Carolina. Squatters are not required to pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim here.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in North Carolina
There are no special laws for removing squatters in North Carolina. Landowners must go through a judicial eviction process in order to have squatters removed from the property.
However, there is a disability provision in North Carolina law. If a landowner is legally disabled (they are underage, imprisoned, or legally incompetent), they have more time to reclaim their property. After their disability is lifted (after they come of age, are released from prison, or regain competency), they have 3 additional years to stop an adverse possession claim.
There are a host of different eviction notices in North Carolina, and each of them can kick off an adverse possession claim. For squatters, you’ll probably want to go with the Ten-Day Notice to Quit, which gives a squatter 10 days to pay rent before they will be evicted.
Some squatters may attempt to fight the eviction in order to gain more time on the property. Most squatters will not win the case, though – if there is no legal rental contract or other paperwork, they have no reason to be on the property.
After a successful eviction, a landowner cannot remove squatters on their own. Any measures that a landowner takes to self-evict the squatters (such as shutting off the utilities or changing the locks) is illegal and can result in a lawsuit for the landowner. Instead, they must obtain a Writ of Possession, which will allow the sheriff to remove the squatter from the property and add a padlock.
For a civil property issue, you should always call the sheriff and not local law enforcement. The police can only help with criminal trespassers, and they often can’t help beyond that. It is critical that you only contact the local police in this instance, and leave all squatter issues to the sheriff or constable.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in North Carolina
- 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 North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 1 Art. 4 §§ 1-38, et seq.; Art. 3 1-17 (2015) for more information.