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 South Carolina
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction, starting with serving an eviction notice
- Required Time of Occupation: 10 years of continuous occupation (with color of title)
- Color of Title: Required for all 10 years of continuous occupation
- Property Taxes: Not required, but may help with adverse possession claim
Who is Considered a Squatter in South Carolina?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, unoccupied, or foreclosed residential building or area of land without the lawful permission of the owner. This means that the person doesn’t own or rent the property. Even so, squatting is legal in the United States and more common than you might think.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, while squatting is usually civil in nature. However, once a landowner has established that a squatter is unwelcome, squatting can be treated like a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers might falsely claim that they have a right to be on the property. They can accomplish this by presenting false or fraudulent papers 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 in order to gain them. If they do not meet these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- May homeless people may try to take advantage of squatter’s rights in order to gain ownership of a property without paying rent or a 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 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 South Carolina
After a certain time residing on the property, a squatter can gain legal ownership through adverse possession. In South Carolina, a squatter must possess the land continuously for a period of 10 years (and have color of title) to make an adverse possession claim (S.C. Code Ann. § 15-67-210).
At this point, the squatter is no longer considered a criminal trespasser. Once an adverse possession case has been made, the squatter has legal permission to remain on the property.
It’s important to note that if there was ever a landlord-tenant relationship between the squatter and the landowner (such as a holdover tenant situation), the 10-year continuous possession period doesn’t begin until the lease ends.
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 are an owner. This can be proven by documenting any efforts on the part of the squatter to beautify the land or perform maintenance.
In South Carolina, making improvements to the property is one way to own land. If a squatter has color of title, they can be granted all of the land they have improved over the 10-year period. However, if the squatter makes improvements but does not have color of title, they may be able to gain ownership over the building or land where they have been living, and no cultivated land will be included in their claim.
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 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 10 continuous years in order to qualify for adverse possession in South Carolina. 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’ during your research into squatter’s rights. Color of title simply means that the ownership of the property is not ‘regular’ and may be missing one or more of the correct legal registrations, memorials, or other documents.
In South Carolina, color of title is required for adverse possession claims. This means that if a squatter does not have legitimate paperwork or legal claim to a property, they will not be able to obtain it via adverse possession.
A squatter must have color of title for all 10 continuous occupation years in order to qualify to make an adverse possession claim.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in South Carolina?
In South Carolina, squatters do not have to pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim. If a squatter can prove that they have paid property taxes it can definitely help with their adverse possession claim, but it is not a requirement.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in South Carolina
South Carolina doesn’t have any specific laws regarding the removal of squatters. Every landowner who wishes to remove a squatter will need to go through a judicial eviction process in order to get a squatter off of their property.
There is also no provisions for disabled landowners in South Carolina law, only that a ‘legal’ disability in this case only extends to the underaged or legally incompetent/insane. Each adverse possession claim brought against a landowner of this description will be examined on an individual basis, as there is no standard.
To begin the process of a judicial eviction, a landowner must issue an eviction notice. If the squatter is doing something illegal or causing damage to the property, they can be served with an Unconditional Quit Notice. After this notice is served, the landowner can immediately file an eviction with their county court.
However, if the squatter is not a threat to others or to the property, the best notice to use is the Five-Day Notice to Pay Rent. This notice should tell the squatter how much they have to pay in order to remain on the property. Most squatters will not pay the amount. On the sixth day after this notice is served, the landowner can file an eviction with their county courts.
A hearing will be scheduled shortly after, and the landowner and the squatter will be summoned to appear. Unless the squatter has a very good defense, it is not likely that the judge will rule in their favor. Most squatter eviction cases will be ruled in favor of the landowner.
After a successful eviction, the landowner must not try to remove the squatter themselves. Self-eviction measures are illegal, and this covers everything from threats to physically removing the tenant, changing the locks, or turning off the utilities. These actions can open a landowner up to a lawsuit.
Only a law enforcement officer with a court order may remove a squatter from the property after a judicial eviction.
If a squatter leaves personal property behind, South Carolina allows the landowner to immediately get rid of it without notifying the squatter. However, they can only do this if the eviction notice clearly indicates that the landlord will do so.
A landowner who is facing a squatter situation should always call the sheriff or constable instead of the local police. The local law enforcement might be able to take care of a trespasser, but the jurisdiction to take action against a squatter lies only with the sheriff or constable.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in South Carolina
- 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 South Carolina Code Title 15, Ch. 67, Art. 3 for more information.