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 Utah
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction process (serving 5-Day Notice to Quit)
- Required Time of Occupation: 7 years’ continuous occupation, with improvements to property
- Color of Title: Required for all 7 years’ required continuous occupation time
- Property Taxes: Required for all 7 years’ required continuous occupation time
Who is Considered a Squatter in Utah?
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 doesn’t rent the property or own it. Despite this, squatting in the United States is legal and more common than you might think.
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 Utah
After residing on a property for a certain amount of time, a squatter can gain legal ownership of that property through the process of adverse possession. In Utah, a squatter must possess the property continuously for a period of 7 years before they can make an adverse possession claim (Utah Code Ann. §§ 78B-2-208 to 78B-2-214). They must also cultivate or improve the land in order to make a claim.
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 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 be physically present on the property and treat 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) is an example of the actual possession of the land.
Open & Notorious
“Open & Notorious” means that it has to be obvious to anyone that someone is squatting on the property. They must not be attempting to hide the fact that they live there. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that a squatter is present.
The trespasser must be the only one in possession of the property. They cannot share possession with strangers, other tenants, or the landowner.
The squatter must reside on the property for 7 continuous years before they can make an adverse possession claim. 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’ during your research into squatter’s rights. This simply means that the ownership of the property is not ‘regular’. The property’s owner is missing one or more of the required legal documents, registrations, or memorials.
In Utah, a squatter must have color of title for all 7 years of the required continuous occupation time. An adverse possession claim cannot be started if the squatter doesn’t have color of title.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim will have color of title, too.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Utah?
In Utah, squatters must pay property taxes for all 7 required years of continuous occupation in order to qualify to make an adverse possession claim. While some states may reduce this time if a squatter pays property taxes, Utah does not.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Utah
In Utah, there are no special laws for getting rid of squatters. Instead, a landowner who needs to remove a squatter should go through a judicial eviction process; the only difference is in the eviction notice itself.
Utah also does not make any provision for a disabled landlord. Some states will delay adverse possession or increase continuous possession requirements if the person who owns the land has a legal disability, but this isn’t the case in Utah.
The judicial eviction process begins with an eviction notice. Utah has a specific notice for squatters. The landowner must serve the squatter with a 5-Day Notice to Quit as a tenant-at-will. They are not offered a chance to change, and they cannot stay if they pay rent.
After these five days are up, the landowner can file an eviction with their county court. A squatter may attempt to fight the eviction, but unless they have a very good defense or a legal reason to be on the property, the judge will most likely rule in favor of the landowner.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner cannot self-evict the squatter. That is, they cannot take any measures that might force the squatter to leave, including changing the locks or shutting off the utilities. This is illegal and can open the landowner up to a lawsuit. The sheriff must remove the squatter with a court order, and this is usually done at a specific date and time.
If the squatter leaves behind personal property after the eviction, the landlord must store it in a safe place. Personal documents, clothing, and prescription medications can be stored separately. The squatter can retrieve these items within 5 days without paying storage fees.
The squatter must be given reasonable notice to retrieve their property. If they don’t come to pick it up after that reasonable amount of time, the landowner can dispose of it as they see fit.
When dealing with a squatter, a landowner must call the sheriff to help. The sheriff is the only one who has this jurisdiction. While local law enforcement can help if there is a criminal trespasser, they can’t do much for a squatting situation.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Utah
- 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.
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 Utah Code Ann. §§ 78B-2-208 to 78B-2-214 for more information.