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 Ohio
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction (starting with serving 3-Day Notice to Quit)
- Required Time of Occupation: 21 years of continuous occupation
- Color of Title: Not required, but may help an adverse possession claim
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Ohio?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied residential building or area of land without lawful permission. This means that the person doesn’t own or rent the property. Even so, squatting is legal and 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, once a landowner has established that the squatter is unwelcome, it can be treated like a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers might falsely claim a right to be on the property. They accomplish this by presenting false or fraudulent paperwork or other documents to the owner or to law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must meet the requirements for adverse possession to use them. If they do not meet these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Many homeless people try to take advantage of squatters’ rights to gain ownership of a property without paying rent or mortgage.
There are exceptions to the rule.
- If a person beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (by removing debris, planting flowers, or making other improvements), they could possibly avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gains access to the property without permission can be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to begin the purpose of an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, otherwise known as ‘tenants at sufferance’, are tenants who refuse to leave the property when their lease has ended. In this situation, the tenant is responsible for continuing to pay rent at the existing rate and with the existing terms.
If the landlord chooses, they may continue to accept the rent without worrying about the legality of the occupancy. In this case, the tenant becomes a ‘tenant at will’. This means that they are only on the property at the will of the landlord. They can be evicted at any time without notice.
However, if the holdover tenant receives a notice to quit (or move out) and refuses to leave, they may 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 asked to leave the property. At this point, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Ohio
After a certain time residing on a property, a squatter can gain legal ownership through adverse possession. In Ohio, a squatter must possess the land continuously for a period of 21 years before they can make an adverse possession claim (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2305.04).
At this point, the squatter is no longer considered a criminal trespasser. Once an adverse possession claim has been made, the squatter has legal 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 the squatters do not meet these five requirements, they do not have the grounds for adverse possession.
Let’s take a look at what each of these means.
“Hostile” doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous or violent. In the legal sense, hostile has three definitions.
- Simple occupation. This rule is followed by most states today. It defines ‘hostile’ as a 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 be aware that their use of the land or building is trespassing. They have to know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good faith mistake. Many states have a provision for squatters to believe that they do have a legal right to be on the property. This requires that the squatter make a good faith mistake in occupying the property, most often by relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, they are unaware of the property’s current legal status and are using the property “in good faith”.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property and using the land as if they were an owner. This can be proven by documenting any efforts on the part of the squatter to beautify the land or perform maintenance.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open and Notorious” means that it has to be obvious to anyone that someone is squatting on the property. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that the squatter is there. They must not be attempting to hide that they are living there.
The squatter must be the only one possessing the land. They cannot share occupation with other tenants, the landlord, or even other squatters or trespassers.
A squatter must reside on the land for a period of 21 continuous years to qualify for adverse possession in Ohio. They cannot leave for a number of weeks or months and then claim that time as part of their continuous occupation time frame.
Color of Title
You’ve probably come across the term ‘color of title’ when researching squatter’s rights. Color of Title simply means that someone has gained ownership of the property without being ‘regular.’ Most often, this means that they are missing one or more legal documents or memorials, or the property is not registered properly.
In Ohio, color of title is not required for an adverse possession claim. Having a color of title claim can definitely help an adverse possession claim, but it is not required at all.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim also has legal color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Ohio?
Some states require that squatters pay property taxes in order to be considered for adverse possession. Ohio is not one of these states. Squatters can make an adverse possession claim without ever paying property taxes on the property.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Ohio
Ohio doesn’t have any specific laws for getting squatters off a property. Instead, a landowner who wishes to remove squatters must go through a judicial eviction process.
However, Ohio does have specific laws regarding landowners with disabilities. If a landowner has a legal disability (they are under 18, imprisoned, or legally incompetent), the same 21-year continuous occupation period should be observed. However, the landowner has an additional 10 years to dispute the adverse possession claim after the disability has lifted (they come of age, are released from prison, or regain competency/sanity).
Otherwise, a legal eviction must proceed as follows.
First, the landowner must serve the squatter with an unconditional 3-Day Notice to Quit. This can be served for nonpayment of rent or other distractions (or for the use or sale of illegal drugs). Unlike other states, this notice does not allow the squatter to pay a certain amount (of unpaid rent or fees) to remain on the property.
If the squatter doesn’t leave after these three days are up, the landlord can file an eviction with the county courts. After this notice, a hearing will be scheduled and both the landlord and the squatter will be required to appear. Unless the squatter has a reasonable defense for the eviction, it will most likely be ruled in favor of the landowner.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner must never remove the squatter themselves. This also means that they cannot take any steps that cause the squatter to leave, including changing the locks or turning off the utilities. These self-eviction actions are illegal and may open the landlord up to a lawsuit.
Instead, a Sheriff or Constable must be called to remove the tenant. Afterward, a landowner might find that the squatter has left behind personal property. Some states tell a landowner how long they must keep the property before disposing of it; this isn’t the case with Ohio. Still, a landlord must take reasonable steps to notify the squatter and allow them to reclaim their property.
If the squatter still does not collect their personal property, the landowner may dispose of it however they see fit.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Ohio
- Inspect the property regularly
- Make sure that the property is secured. Block all entrances, close all windows, and lock every door.
- Post “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it’s currently unoccupied.
- Serve written notice as soon as you notice that squatters are present.
- Offer to rent the property to the squatters.
- Call the sheriff (not the local law enforcement) to remove squatters from the premises if they do not leave.
- Hire a lawyer. You may need to take legal action to remove squatters, and having the correct legal advice is critical for every step of the journey.
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 Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2305.04 for more information.