Imagine finding out that someone is living in your vacant rental property, rent-free. Then imagine wanting to remove this person from your property only to find out that they have “squatters rights”, and if you are not careful they can even eventually come to own your property.
Sounds like a nightmare, right? Unfortunately, this is a real possibility and as a landlord, you need to make sure this nightmare doesn’t become your reality.
In this article, we’ll go over what squatters are, what rights they have, and how to protect your property from them.
What is a Squatter?
Squatters are people living in a property that they do not own or pay rent for.
Squatters typically take up residence in properties that are not well protected, that are neglected, abandoned, or vacant and forgotten.
In the eyes of the law, a squatter has similar rights to a tenant that has stopped paying the rent, which means that they cannot simply be removed from the property without proper action.
Squatters laws date back to British law, when they were used to establish property lines and ownership. More recently, squatters laws have been developed in the U.S. in large cities with affordable housing concerns.
Is Squatting Legal?
The act of squatting is not legal, but unless a homeowner can prove that a squatter is trespassing, they will need to obtain an eviction in order to remove them from the property.
In many cases, squatters can be considered trespassers—individuals living in or on the property without the owner’s permission or knowledge, but this would depend on the municipality where the property is located.
What Are Squatters Rights?
Squatters rights vary by states, but typically, in the eyes of the law, a squatter has similar rights to a tenant that has stopped paying the rent. This means that they cannot simply be removed from the property without proper action.
Most states require landlords to serve unauthorized tenants, including squatters, with an eviction notice either via mail or through their local police department before being able to forcibly remove them from the property.
The main reason it’s important to take legal action against a squatter immediately is adverse possession, which could legally allow a squatter to take ownership of the property in which they are squatting.
Adverse possession laws allow squatters — after paying the homeowners’ association fees, taxes, and other costs associated with the property after a set period of time — to obtain ownership of the property.
Depending on your state’s laws, assuming a squatter can prove that they have lived in the property longer than the pre-defined time period, they can claim ownership of the property if they are first to pay upcoming property taxes, association fees, and other property-related expenses.
What is Adverse Possession?
Adverse possession is a doctrine under which a person in possession of land owned by someone else may acquire valid title to it, so long as certain common law requirements are met, and the adverse possessor is in possession for a sufficient period of time, as defined by a statute of limitations.
Adverse possession may be obtained by a trespasser, a tenant no longer under a lease, and by land claimers. Unfortunately for property owners, adverse possession can even happen unintentionally by neighbors taking over their property.
To activate adverse possession in many states, squatters must conform to additional requirements.
These include but are not limited to making improvements to the home or property, proving they did not take the property by force, and filing their state’s legal claim to that property.
How To Evict Squatters
Since different states have different laws regarding squatters, it’s always advisable to consult with an attorney on how best to proceed.
Here’s what you should do if you discover squatters on your property:
- Call local law enforcement right away: The police will be able to determine if your squatters are actually trespassers. If they are trespassing, they will get arrested and your problem will be solved right then and there.
- If not trespassing, serve squatters with an eviction notice: If the cops determine that you do in fact have squatters, you will have to start the eviction process immediately by serving an eviction notice. With any luck, the squatters will leave after being notified.
- Continue with an eviction lawsuit if needed: Follow your state’s eviction process to get a legal eviction from the courts.
- Use your granted eviction to forcibly remove squatters: With an eviction judgment in hand, you can now have local law enforcement physically remove the squatters from your property.
- Follow the law on handling squatter possessions: After removing your squatters, take care to handle their possessions legally and put an end to the matter for good.
How to prevent squatters
The best way to deal with squatters is to avoid having to in the first place.
There are several measures every landlord should take to minimize the possibility of a squatter in a property:
- Keep up-to-date with property tax records, always pay taxes on time
- If the taxes haven’t been paid, make sure another individual hasn’t paid taxes on the property
- Keep rental agreements and leases up-to-date and signed by all parties
- Where appropriate, gate entrances and lock to deter trespassers
- Post “no trespassing” signs
- Regularly check on vacant properties for trespassers