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 Texas
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction (serving 3-Day Notice to Vacate)
- Required Time of Occupation: 10 years’ continuous occupation; 5 for color of title holders and who made improvements to property, in addition to paying property taxes
- Color of Title: Required for 3 out of 10 years of required continuous occupation
- Property Taxes: Required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Texas?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, unoccupied, or foreclosed building or area of land without the lawful permission of the owner. The person does not rent or own the property. Despite this, squatting in the United States is legal and quite common.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting isn’t necessarily trespassing. Trespassing is a criminal offense, while squatting is usually a civil matter. However, squatting can be treated as a criminal behavior if the property owner or landlord has established that the individual in question is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers may falsely claim that they have a right to be on the property. They might accomplish this by presenting fraudulent documents such as fake deeds to the landowner or law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must fulfill the requirements for adverse possession to take advantage of them. If they do not fulfill these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Many homeless people may try to take advantage of squatters’ 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 the property (planting flowers, removing debris, etc), they may be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gained access to a property without authorization or permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to make an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, or tenants at sufferance, are tenants who will not 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 can 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. At this point, they are considered a criminal trespasser instead.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Texas
After residing on a property for a certain amount of time, a squatter can gain legal ownership of a property through the process of adverse possession. In Texas, a squatter must possess the property continuously for a period of 10 years before they can make an adverse possession claim (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 16.021, et seq). 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 the squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
If the squatter does not meet these five requirements, they do not have 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 actually possesses the property (is physically present) and treats it as if they are an owner. This can be established by documenting the trespasser’s efforts to maintain and make improvements to the property. Any beautification efforts such as landscaping (as mentioned above) is an example of the actual possession of the land.
Open & Notorious
“Open & Notorious” means that it must be obvious to anyone that someone is living on the property. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that someone is squatting on the property, and the squatter is not trying to hide the fact that they live there.
The trespasser must possess the land exclusively. This means that the trespasser cannot share possession with strangers, the owner, or other tenants.
The squatter must reside on the property for 10 continuous years before they can make an adverse possession time. This time must be uninterrupted. They cannot give up the property, return to it later, and claim the time they were gone as part of the ‘continuous’ possession time period.
Color of Title
You may have come across the term ‘color of title’ while researching squatter’s rights. Color of Title simply means that someone has gained ownership of the property without it being ‘regular’. Most often, this means that the owner is missing one or more of the proper documents, memorials, or registrations.
In Texas, a squatter must have color of title for 3 years out of the required 10 years of continuous occupation in order to make an adverse possession claim. However, if the squatter has made improvements to the property and paid property taxes in addition to having color of title, they only have to occupy the property for 5 years before they can make a claim.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim would have color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Texas?
In Texas, squatters are required to pay property taxes to make an adverse possession claim. If a squatter pays property taxes, possesses color of title, and cultivates or makes an improvement to the land, the required occupation time is reduced from the standard 10 years. If all of these requirements are met, the squatter must only occupy the property for 5 years.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Texas
In Texas, there are no special laws about removing squatters from your property. All landowners who find themselves faced with this issue should follow a judicial eviction process to remove the squatter from their property.
However, there is a disability provision for landowners who are legally disabled. When a landowner is under the age of 18, legally incompetent, or imprisoned, the required continuous occupation time is extended. A squatter will have to continuously occupy a property or area of land for 25 continuous years in order to file an adverse possession claim if the landowner is disabled.
Some states grant a disabled landowner additional time to reclaim their land after their disability is lifted, but Texas is not one of those states. An adverse possession claim cannot be delayed for longer than 25 years.
In all other cases, a landowner seeking to remove a squatter must start the eviction process. This starts with an eviction notice.
In Texas, a landowner can serve a squatter with a three-day notice to vacate. This notice is applicable when the squatter or tenant hasn’t paid rent. Some states require that the landowner give the squatter time or an opportunity to pay the rent owned to continue staying on the property, but Texas is not one of them.
If the squatter does not leave the property at the end of those three days, the landowner can file an eviction with their county court. Some squatters might try to challenge this eviction in order to gain more time on the property, but their efforts are usually in vain. Unless the squatter has a good defense for remaining on the property, a judge will usually rule in favor of the landowner.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner cannot remove a squatter from the property themselves. Any measure taken to force the squatter to leave (including physically removing them from the property, turning off the utilities, or changing the locks) is illegal and can open the landowner up to a lawsuit.
Only a law enforcement officer with a court order can remove a squatter. This will usually happen at a court-appointed time and date.
If the squatter leaves behind any personal property, a landowner must carefully inventory the property, store anything that has value, and give the squatter written notice that they have a reasonable amount of time (usually 30 days) to retrieve the property. If they do not come to claim the property after a reasonable amount of time has passed, the property is considered abandoned and the landowner can dispose of it as they see fit.
Please note that when dealing with any type of squatting situation, you should not call the local law enforcement. The sheriff has jurisdiction to remove a squatter, whereas the local law enforcement can only help with criminal trespassers. Contacting the right person can definitely help you.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Texas
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Always pay your own property taxes.
- Secure the property (block all entrances, lock all doors and windows, etc).
- Install a “No Trespassing” sign, especially if it is unoccupied.
- Serve written notices as soon as you realize there are squatters 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. In some cases, you may need to take legal action against a squatter, and having the right counsel can make all of the difference.