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
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Judicial eviction (serving a 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit)
- Required Time of Occupation: 10 years of continuous possession; 7 with color of title and paid property taxes
- Color of Title: Required for all 7 years of continuous occupation
- Property Taxes: Required for all 7 years of continuous occupation
Who is Considered a Squatter in Washington?
“Squatter” is not a legal term. As such, there is no exact or legally relevant definition of a squatter. Generally, a squatter is someone who is occupying another person’s property with the intention to stay or live there. In this sense, some trespassers can be squatters, but not all squatters are trespassers.
Isn’t that Trespassing?
Squatting isn’t necessarily trespassing. While trespassing is a criminal matter, squatting is usually civil in nature. Once the landlord or property owner has established that the squatter is unwelcome, however, it can be treated like a criminal offense.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters may falsely claim a right to be on the property by presenting the owner or law enforcement with false or fraudulent paperwork. This is always illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but they must meet the requirements for adverse possession in order to use them. If they do not meet these requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Squatters cannot make an adverse possession claim on government property.
- Squatters can be complete strangers or even neighbors who want to obtain title to land.
There are exceptions to this rule:
- If a person beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (by removing debris, planting flowers, or making other improvements, etc.), they could avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- If there is a legitimate emergency, a person who gains access to a property without permission can be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for squatters to begin the process of an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants, or ‘tenants at sufferance,’ are tenants who refuse to 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 there 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 (move out) and refuses to leave, they can 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 the property. At this point, they are considered a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Washington
A squatter can claim rights to a property after a certain time residing there. In Washington, it takes 7 years (with color of title and paid property taxes) or 10 years of continuous possession for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 7.28.050, et seq.). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is no longer considered a criminal trespasser. They have lawful permission to remain on the property.
In the U.S., there are five distinct legal requirements that a 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 7 years (with color of title and paid property taxes) or 10 years.
If these five requirements are not met by the squatter, then 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 violent or dangerous. In the legal sense, hostile can have three alternative definitions.
- Simple Occupation. This rule is followed by most states today. Here, ‘hostile’ is defined as the 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 is aware that his or her use of the property is trespassing. They know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good Faith Mistake. A few states choose to follow this rule instead. Here, the trespasser has made an innocent good faith mistake in occupying the property in the first place, such as by relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, the squatter was using the property ‘in good faith’ and was unaware of the property’s legal status.
Actual possession requires that the trespasser is physically present on the property and treats it as if they are an owner. This can be established by documenting beautification efforts (as mentioned above). Any improvements made to the property can prove actual possession.
In the terms of adverse possession claims for forestland, a squatter must have made substantial improvements which the cost of construction costs over $50,000. (RCW 7.28.085)
Open & Notorious Possession
It must be obvious to anyone that a squatter is residing on the property. They must not be trying to hide that they are living there. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that someone is squatting on the property.
The squatter must possess the land exclusively. This means that the trespasser cannot share possession with other tenants, other squatters, the owner, or strangers.
The squatter must reside on the property for the entire 10 years or 7 years (with color of title and paid property taxes) for an adverse possession claim in Washington. They cannot leave for weeks or months, return later, and then claim the time they were absent as part of their continuous possession period. The time the squatter resides on the property must be uninterrupted.
However, if the landlord is legally disabled (either they are under the age of 18, imprisoned, in the military, or legally incompetent), they have additional time to gain control over their property and prevent adverse possession claims. This is called “tolling” and means that the possessory period cannot begin until the disability is lifted. In this case, they have 3 years after their disability is lifted (either they come of age, regain competency, or are released from prison) to prevent an adverse possession claim.
Color of Title
You have probably come across the term ‘color of title’ during your research into squatter’s rights. Color of title simply means that the ownership of the property is not ‘regular’. The owner is missing one or more of the correct legal documents, memorials, or registrations.
In Washington, a squatter may assert an adverse possession claim if they have color of title for 7 years (and have paid property taxes). Having color of title is required for all 7 years, and does decease the standard 10-year continuous occupation time.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim has color of title as well.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Washington?
In Washington, a squatter must pay property taxes for all 7 years of their continuous occupation time. If they cannot prove that they have paid property taxes and have color of title for this time, the squatter cannot make an adverse possession claim and will have to wait for the standard 10-year time period.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Washington
Unlike in most states, Washington landowners can remove squatters from their property by calling the police. Additionally, other states require a landowner to go through a civil eviction process to remove squatters; however, Washington allows landowners to take criminal action against squatters. More specifically landlords can give the required declaration form to law enforcement. Upon receiving this declaration form, the law enforcement officer must allow the supposed squatter to present credible evidence of the latter’s right to be on the premises. If the squatter fails to do so, then the law enforcement officer may remove the squatter from the premises. If the squatter refuses to comply, they may be arrested for trespassing.
The landlord may only be able to avail of this remedy after requesting the squatter to leave and if the squatter is not or has not been a tenant or owner of the property within the last 12 months. Otherwise, the landlord must go through a normal eviction process.
Declaration Form: The declaration form is required is a specific form provided by Washington law. It specifically states that:
- The person making the declaration is the owner or is acting with the owner.
- There is a person staying in the property without authority to do so.
- That the person staying therein is not a tenant or owner and has not been either for the past 12 months.
- The premises were not abandoned when the unauthorized person entered the same nor was it open to the public.
- The person making the declaration understands that a person or persons removed from the premises may sue them for any false statements made in the declaration, for detaining the latter’s property or unlawfully excluding them from the premises and that as a result of such they may be held liable for actual damages, costs, and reasonable attorneys’ fees.
- The person making the declaration holds the peace officer harmless for the officer’s actions pursuant to the declaration.
Click here to get the specific form.
Credible Evidence: The squatter or the person occupying the premises may thwart the action by presenting to the peace officer credible evidence of their right to stay in the premises. The law enforcement officer must consider evidence showing that the supposed squatter is actually a tenant, legal occupant, or the guest or invitee of tenants or legal occupants.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Washington
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- Make sure that the property is secured. Block all entrances, close all windows, and lock every door.
- Post “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it’s currently unoccupied.
- Serve written notice as soon as you notice that squatters are 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. You may need to take legal action to remove squatters, and having the correct legal advice is critical for every step of the journey.
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 Revised Code of Washington Ann. §§ 7.28.050, et seq. for more information.