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 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.
- Squatters can be strangers or even neighbors who want to obtain title of land.
There are exceptions to the rule.
- If a person beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (by removing debris, planting flowers, or making other improvements, etc.) 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.
Read more about tenants at will here.
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 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 21 years.
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 terms mean.
“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 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 must 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 several 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 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 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 eviction notice. There are several grounds for eviction in Ohio.
- Nonpayment of Rent – A landowner may issue a 3-Day Notice to Pay to the squatter with a specified amount of money due with 3 days. If squatter does not pay the rent, the landowner can file an eviction suit with the court.
- No Lease/End of Lease – If there was no lease to begin with or a tenant stays after the rental term has expired, a landowner can issue a notice to quit. The amount of notice depends on the type of tenancy. For month-to-month tenancies a landowner may issue a 30-Day Notice to Quit and week-to-week tenancies a landowner may issue a 7-Day Notice to Quit.
- Material Health/Safety Violation – If a squatter violates any health, building, safety or housing code they may be issued a 30-Day Notice to Comply. If there is no compliance by the squatter, the landowner may bring the eviction process.
- Illegal Activity – Any illegal drug activity done on the premises or if the squatter is a registered sex offender a landowner may issue a 3-Day Notice to Quit.
If the squatter doesn’t leave after the notice period has expired, the landowner can file an eviction with the county courts. A hearing will be scheduled and both the landowner and the squatter will be required to appear. If the squatter doesn’t appear, the hearing will not continue and the judge will grant the eviction immediately.
If the eviction is granted, a Writ of Execution shall be delivered to the squatter by the sheriff which is the squatters final notice to vacate. If the squatter does not vacate, the sheriff, constable, police officer or bailiff may remove them from the property.
It is important to note that 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.
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.
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- 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 § 2305.04 for more information.