Squatter’s Rights in Washington D.C.

Last Updated: July 18, 2022 by Elizabeth Souza

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 Washington D.C.

  • How to Get Rid of Squatters: Request police presence; file a complaint with the court
  • Required Time of Occupation: 15 years
  • Color of Title: Not addressed
  • Property Taxes: Not addressed

Who Is Considered a Squatter in Washington D.C.?

A squatter is someone who takes up residence in an abandoned, unoccupied or foreclosed building or area of land. This is done without lawful permission. The person does not own or rent the property they take over but are usually there without the owner’s knowledge.

Isn’t That Trespassing?

Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. While trespassing is a criminal offense, squatting is usually a civil matter. However, squatting can be treated as criminal behavior if the property owner or landlord has established that the individual in question is unwelcome.

Keep the following in mind.

  1. Squatters or trespassers might falsely claim that they have a right to the property. They can do this by presenting false or fraudulent papers or proof to the owner or law enforcement. This is illegal.
  2. Even though squatters do have rights in general, they can be arrested as a trespasser if they do not fulfill the requirements for adverse possession.
  3. Squatters cannot claim adverse possession on state and municipal government lands.
  4. 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 Washington D.C.

A squatter can claim rights to a property after residing there for a certain time. In Washington D.C., it takes 15 years of continuous use or maintenance for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim. When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain ownership of the property legally. At this point, the squatter has lawful permission to remain on the property and is no longer a criminal trespasser.

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:

  1. Hostile – honest belief that they are the owner; therefore, without permission and against the right of the true owner.
  2. Actual – exercising control over the real property.
  3. Open & Notorious – using the property as the owner would and not hiding his/her occupancy.
  4. Exclusive – in the possession of the individual occupying the real property alone.
  5. Continuous – staying on the property for 15 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 Claim

“Hostile” doesn’t always mean violent or aggressive. In the legal sense, ‘hostile’ can have three definitions.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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.

Exclusive Possession

The trespasser must possess the land exclusively. This means that the trespasser cannot share possession with strangers, the owner, or other tenants.

Continuous Possession

The squatter must prove that they have resided in the property for an uninterrupted amount of time. This means that they cannot abandon the property, return to it later, and then claim to have possessed the property for the entire length of time. In Washington D.C., squatters must have occupied the property or maintained it for at least 15 years.

Color of Title

Some states have measures for ‘color of title’. This term means that someone has gained ownership of a property without one or more pieces of the required documentation. This can also mean that the squatter believes that they have the right to be there. This is not addressed in Washington D.C. law.

Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Washington D.C.?

Some states don’t require squatters to pay property taxes to claim adverse possession. In Washington D.C. the law is vague.

How to Get Rid of Squatters in Washington D.C.

There are a few ways to deal with squatters in Washington D.C. (Code of the District of Columbia §16-3301)

  • The owner may file a police report with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.
  • The owner of the property may file a Verified Complaint for Possession of Real Property – Form 1B with the District Court. Form 1B is used when there is a violation of obligations of tenancy. This form includes filing a complaint upon a person in your home who is not a tenant and refuses to leave.
  • The owner may file a complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to have the title “perfected”. This complaint recognizes that the owner holds the title of the real property.  It is not necessary to have a defendant, with the exception of the individuals who appear to have a claim or title adverse to that of the owner.

If the landowner is legally “disabled”, they have a longer period to reclaim their property from a squatter or trespasser. A legal disability can mean that the landowner is underage (and have inherited the property) or otherwise incapable of making legal decisions. In this case, the landlord has up to 22 years to prevent an adverse possession claim (by removing the squatters).

If the landowner’s disability is removed, either by coming of age, regaining sanity or regaining legal agency, they have two years to reclaim their land. This means that if a squatter is using the land of a disabled person, the period after which they can file an adverse possession claim is extended.

Another way to deny squatters an adverse possession claim is to rent the property to them. This can diffuse their adverse possession claim, but it does make getting rid of them significantly harder.

Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Washington D.C.

  • Inspect the property regularly.
  • Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
  • Secure the property (e.g., make sure all entrances, doors, and windows are locked or blocked).
  • Install “No Trespassing” signs, especially if the property is currently unoccupied.
  • Serve written notices as soon as you can when you realize that squatters are present.
  • Offer to rent the property to the squatters.
  • Have proof of rent receipts.
  • Call the police to remove squatters from the property if they refuse to 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.

Squatters have different rights in different states. Make sure you refer District of Columbia Adverse Possession Laws for more information.