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 Vermont
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction (i.e., serving 14-Day Notice to Pay Rent)
- Required Time of Occupation: 15 years’ continuous occupation
- Color of Title: Not required, but can help with adverse possession claim
- Property Taxes: Not required
Who is Considered a Squatter in Vermont?
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. While trespassing is a criminal offense, squatting is usually civil in nature. 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 to law enforcement. This is always illegal.
- Squatters have rights, but in order to take advantage of them, they must meet the requirements for adverse possession. If they do not fulfill these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Many 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 this rule:
- If a person beautifies the property (by 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 in order 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 Vermont
After a certain amount of time residing on a property, a squatter can gain legal ownership of the property through the process of adverse possession. In Vermont, a squatter must possess the property continuously for a period of 15 years before they can make an adverse possession claim (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12 § 501). 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 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 15 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. Color of title simply means that the owner of the property is missing one or more of the correct legal documents, memorials, or registrations.
Some states require color of title for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim, but Vermont is not one of them. A squatter does not have to have color of title in order to make a claim, but it can certainly help their case.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession case would also have color of title.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Vermont?
While some states require squatters to pay property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim, Vermont is not one of them. Squatters do not have to pay property taxes in this state.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Vermont
There are no special laws in Vermont detailing how to remove squatters from a property. All landowners seeking to remove squatter must begin the process of a judicial eviction. There is also no provision for a disabled landlord, and an adverse possession claim cannot be delayed.
The eviction process begins with an eviction notice. In Vermont, a landowner can serve a squatter with a Fourteen-Day Notice to Pay Rent, which must detail the amount of rent that must be paid for the squatter to remain on the property. Most of the time, the squatter will not pay this amount. In that case, the landowner can file an eviction with their county’s court to begin the rest of the process.
A hearing will be scheduled, and both the landowner and the squatter will be summoned to attend. A squatter may fight the eviction to gain more time on the property, but unless they have a good legal 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, the landowner cannot take any measures that would force the squatter to leave. Changing the locks or turning off the utilities are illegal and can open the landowner up to a lawsuit, so a court-ordered eviction must be carried out by a sheriff or other law enforcement officer with a court order. This usually takes place at a specific date and time.
If the squatter has left behind any personal property, the landowner must keep the property for 15 days after the execution of the eviction. After that time, they can dispose of the property or sell it as they see fit.
The sheriff is the only one who can help a landowner remove a squatter. Local law enforcement does not have the authority to deal with squatters, though they can help remove criminal trespassers. In a squatting situation, a landowner should always call the sheriff or constable.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Vermont
- Inspect the property regularly
- 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 Vt. Stat. tit. 12 § 501 for more information.