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; or 7 years with color of title
- Color of Title: Not required; but if color of title is obtained reduces statutory period to 7 years instead of 20
- 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 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.
- Squatters can be complete strangers or even neighbors who want to obtain title to 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 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)). Although it’s not a requirement, a squatter can obtain possession of land when they have occupied the land with color of title for 7 years which reduces the statutory period from 20 years. 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 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 20 years or 7 years with color of title
If these five elements are not met, the squatter does not have grounds for adverse possession. Additionally, North Carolina courts have weighed in favor of granting adverse possession to squatters who have paid property taxes, made multiple attempts to exclude others from the land, hold a deed to the land and purchased the land in good faith.
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”.
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. In North Carolina, the marking of boundaries is important, whether it be distinctive by planting trees or adding fencing. The boundary lines must surround the property and shall be 18 inches above the ground. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-38(b)(1)).
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 try to hide the fact 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 or more of the correct legal documents, memorials, or registrations is missing. In some states, this is a requirement for adverse possession.
In North Carolina, color of title is not required to obtain adverse possession, but if the squatter has color of title for 7 years, they may obtain ownership and reduce the statutory period from 20 years.
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. Although paying taxes on the property have helped adverse possession claims, it is not a requirement.
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 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 several different eviction notices in North Carolina:
- Nonpayment of Rent – This 10-Day Notice to Pay allows the squatter to pay a specified amount of rent within 10 days. If the squatter doesn’t pay, the landowner can file an eviction suit.
- Notice to Quit- If there was no lease or the lease has ended, the landowner can issue a notice to quit. The notice period depends on the type of tenancy: for week-to-week tenancies the landowner shall provide a 2-Day Notice to Quit, for month-to-month tenancies the landowner shall issue a 7-Day Notice to Quit and for year-to-year tenancies a 30-Day Notice to Quit is required.
- Illegal Activity- If the squatter is involved with illegal activity, the landowners can proceed with an eviction suit without any prior notice.
If the eviction is granted by the court, the court will provide a Writ of Possession and the sheriff will deliver the writ to the squatter. The writ gives the squatter 5 days to vacate, unless the eviction was due to illegal activity and the squatter will be evicted immediately. If the squatter does not vacate the sheriff will forcibly remove them and their personal possessions.
It is important to note that 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.
For a civil property issue, landowners 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.
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.
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- 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.