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: 7 years of continuous possession
- 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?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, foreclosed, or unoccupied residential building or area of land without the lawful permission of the owner. This means that the person doesn’t rent or own the property. Even so, squatting is legal in the United States and more common than you’d think.
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.
- Many homeless people try to take advantage of squatters’ rights in order to gain ownership over a property without paying rent or a mortgage.
There are exceptions to this rule:
- If a person beautifies an abandoned or unoccupied property (by removing debris, planting flowers, or making other improvements), 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 in order 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.
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 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 US, there are five distinct legal requirements that a squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
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 means.
“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 have to 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 to have 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.
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 7 years required 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.
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 must have color of title in order to make an adverse possession claim. Though having color of title is required for all 7 years, it does not decrease your continuous occupation time like it might in other states.
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 for this time, the squatter cannot make an adverse possession claim.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Washington
Washington has no special laws regarding how to remove squatters from a property. Instead, landowners who find themselves faced with a squatting situation must go through a judicial eviction in order to remove squatters.
However, Washington does have a disability provision. If a landlord is legally disabled (either they are underage, imprisoned, or legally incompetent), they have additional time to gain control over their property and prevent adverse possession claims. 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.
In all other cases, the eviction process begins with an eviction notice. There are two notices that a landowner can use to begin an eviction process, but the only one that is applicable in a squatting situation is the Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. This notice must specify the amount of rent that is past due.
If they do not pay this amount within the three days (most squatters will not or cannot pay), the landowner can file a legal eviction with the county courts.
The squatter may choose to fight the eviction in order to gain more time on the property. Either way, a hearing will be scheduled and both the landowner and the squatter will be summoned to appear. Unless the squatter has a legal reason for being on the property or a very good defense, the judge will most likely rule in favor of the landowner.
Even after a successful eviction, a landowner cannot take any measures to force a squatter to leave. Turning off the utilities, changing the locks, or removing the squatter’s belongings are all self-eviction methods, and these methods are illegal. The only one who can remove a squatter even after an eviction is a Sheriff or constable.
The Sheriff or constable will schedule the eviction at a set date and time, and they will come remove the squatter at that time if they have not already vacated the premises.
If there is personal property left behind after the squatter is removed, the landowner must store it for a number of days. If the value of the property is less than $250, the landowner must wait seven days after sending notice to the squatter before the property can be sold or disposed of. If the value of the property is worth more than $250, a landowner must wait 45 days after sending the squatter a notice.
If the squatter fails to retrieve their property after the correct time period, the landowner can sell or dispose of the property as they see fit.
In all situations where a squatter is involved, a landowner must call the sheriff rather than the local law enforcement. The local police don’t have the jurisdiction to remove a squatter, whereas a sheriff or constable does. The local law enforcement will only be able to help in the case of a criminal trespasser.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Washington
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Always pay your property taxes.
- 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.