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 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.
- Squatters cannot claim adverse possession on state and municipal government lands.
- Squatters can be complete strangers or even neighbors who want to obtain title to the land.
There are exceptions to the rule.
- If a person beautifies the property (e.g., planting flowers, removing debris), 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.
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. 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 time before they can make an adverse possession claim (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 16.021, et seq). In Texas there are several different time periods that a squatter can claim adverse possession:
- 3 Years – A squatter must have color of title and reside on the land for 3 years before making a claim for adverse possession. The squatter does not need to pay property taxes. (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.024)
- 5 Years – A squatter must cultivate, use/enjoy the property, pay property taxes for 5 years, have some sort of recorded valid deed in their name and reside on the land for 5 years before making a claim for adverse possession. The squatter does not need a color of title. (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.025)
- 10 Years – A squatter must reside and improve the land for 10 years and the land must be less than 160 acres (unless the land is enclosed). The squatter does not need color of title or pay taxes. (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 16.026)
In addition, there are five distinct legal requirements that the squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Hostile – honest belief that they are the owner; therefore, 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 3, 5, or 10 years.
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 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 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 the mandatory 10 continuous years (unless they have color of title for 3 years or pay property taxes for 5 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 there are several different time periods that a squatter can claim adverse possession. If the squatter has obtained color of title, then they will need to occupy the property for 3 years and have color of title for all 3 years to make an adverse possession claim. If there is no color of title, the squatter must occupy the land for 10 years to make an adverse possession claim.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Texas?
In Texas, a squatters can make an adverse possession claim if they have paid property taxes for 5 years which is reduced from the standard 10 years. If a squatter pays property taxes, cultivates or makes an improvement to the land, and has some sort of recorded deed in their name the required occupation time is reduced from the standard 10 years. If no property taxes are paid, the squatter must occupy the land for 10 years to make an adverse possession claim.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Texas
In Texas, there are no specific 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 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 and there are several notices a landowner can choose from:
- Nonpayment of Rent – In Texas, a landowner can serve a squatter with a 3-Day Notice to Quit. 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.
- No Lease/End of Lease- If there is no lease or a tenant stays in the rental unit after the rental term has expired, a landowner can issue a notice to quit. The notice period depends on the type of tenancy. For verbal or written leases that have expired a 3-Day Notice to Quit may be served, for week-to-week tenancies a 7-Day Notice to Quit shall be provided, and for month-to-month tenancies a 30-Day Notice to Quit should be issued.
- Illegal Activity – If the squatter commits illegal activity on the property, they should be served with a 3-Day Notice to Quit.
If the squatter does not leave the property at the end of the notice period, the landowner can file an eviction with the county court. Some squatters might try to challenge this eviction 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.
Read more about evictions in Texas here and download our FREE eviction notice form template.
If the court grants the eviction, the landowner must wait for a Writ of Possession to be issued. The writ is the last notice to the squatter to vacate within 24 hours before a sheriff will forcibly remove them.
It is important to note that 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.
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.
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- Secure the property (e.g., block all entrances, lock all doors and windows).
- 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.
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 Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 16.021, § 16.024 for more information.