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 Pennsylvania
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Varied based on property location; judicial eviction usually necessary
- Required Time of Occupation: 21 years of continuous occupation
- Color of Title: Not required
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Pennsylvania?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied building or area of land without the lawful permission of the owner. This means that the person does not rent or own the property. Even so, squatting is legal in the United States and more common than you might think.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting isn’t necessarily trespassing. While trespassing is a criminal offense, squatting is usually a civil matter. However, once the landlord or property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome, they can be treated as a criminal offender.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers might falsely claim a right to be on the property. They can 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 may try to take advantage of squatter’s rights to gain ownership of a property without paying rent or mortgage.
There are exceptions to this rule.
- If a person beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (by removing debris, planting flowers, or making other improvements), they may be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gains access to the property without permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to begin the process 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 Pennsylvania
A squatter can claim rights to the property after a certain time residing there. In Pennsylvania, it takes 21 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (Penn. Tit. 42 § 5530). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is not a criminal trespasser and has lawful permission to remain on the property.
In the US, there are five distinct legal requirements that a squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
If these five requirements are not met by the squatter, then they do 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 can have three definitions.
- Simple occupation. Most states follow this rule. 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. This rule requires that the trespasser is aware that his or her use of the property is trespassing. They have to know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good faith mistake. A few states choose to follow this rule instead. Here, the trespasser has to have made an innocent, good faith mistake in occupying the property. They may be relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, the squatter is using the property ‘in good faith’ and is unaware of the property’s current legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property and treats it as if they are an owner. This can be established by documenting beautification efforts (as mentioned above), as well as measures that are taken to clean up the property or perform regular maintenance.
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & 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 there is a squatter present. The squatter must not be trying to hide that they are occupying the property.
The trespasser has to possess the land exclusively. This means that the squatter cannot share possession with strangers, other squatters, the owner, or even other tenants.
The squatter must reside on the property for the entire 21 years required for an adverse possession claim. They cannot leave for weeks or months, return later, and then claim the time they were absent as part of their continuous occupation period. The time they reside on the property must be uninterrupted.
Color of Title
You’ve most likely come across the term ‘color of title’ during your research into squatter’s rights. ‘Color of title’ simply means that the ownership of the property is not regular and that the legal owner is missing one or more of the correct documents, memorials, or legal registrations.
Some states require color of title for an adverse possession claim. That isn’t the case in Pennsylvania. While it can certainly help a squatter to have color of title, it is not required.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Pennsylvania?
Some states require that the squatter pay property taxes in order to claim adverse possession. Pennsylvania is not one of those states. If a squatter can prove that they have paid taxes on the property, it will undoubtedly help their case, but it isn’t required to make a claim.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has some special laws when it comes to removing a squatter, and these vary based on the location of the property. In some cases, a judicial eviction may still be necessary to remove a squatter from a property.
However, let’s take a look at squatting cases within Philadelphia first. Philadelphia has a special squatter bill that allows a property owner to file an affidavit admitting that they are the rightful owner of the property and that the squatter has no legal right to be there. After this, they can schedule a civil hearing with the Common Pleas Court.
If the judge rules in favor of the landowner, they can order squatter to leave and charge them a fine. They may even order a 90-day jail sentence.
There are certain ejectment processes, but most of the time a landowner may still need to file an eviction against the squatter if the property is outside of the Philadelphia city limits. This begins with the landowner serving the squatter with an eviction notice.
Regardless of the nature of the tenancy, the landowner should serve the squatter with a 10-Day Notice to Vacate. This notice should give the squatter an amount that they must pay (as unpaid rent and late fees) to remain on the property. Most squatters will not pay this amount.
After these 10 days have passed without payment, the landowner can file a legal eviction with their county court. After, a hearing will be scheduled. Squatters rarely have a defense against an eviction because they don’t have a legal right to be on the property. As long as the landowner can prove that the squatter doesn’t belong there, the ruling will most likely be in the favor of the landowner.
Even after an eviction, a landowner cannot take any measures to remove a squatter themselves or force them to leave. Any actions that are taken in this regard (either by changing the locks, removing the squatter’s property, or turning off the utilities) are illegal and can result in a lawsuit for the landowner.
Instead, the squatter has 10 days to either appeal the decision or vacate the property. If they remain, the landowner must obtain a Writ of Possession to finally get rid of the tenants. The sheriff or constable will serve the notice and remove the squatter from the property.
If there is any personal property left behind, the landowner must notify the resident that they have 10 days from the postmarked date to retrieve their belongings. They can request that their property be stored for 30 days. If these periods of time elapse and the property is not retrieved, the landowner may dispose of it as they see fit.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Pennsylvania
- 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 Penn. Tit. 42 § 5530 for more information.