An Inside Look at Squatter's RIghts
Squatters' Rights Explained
Every landlord expects and deserves tenants who can pay rent consistently and on time. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. Across the country, there are properties that house squatters – people who occupy a piece of real property without the legal rights to do so.
Squatting has been a bane to landlords worldwide for quite some time, but there are legal protections that exist for squatters. In most U.S. states, there are squatters’ rights, which allow someone who occupies a property or piece of land for a specified amount of time to gain legal title to that property, without having to pay for it.
Recent global events, namely the covid pandemic have caused many multifamily and commercial property owners to be apprehensive about a rise in squatter activity. There is even a growing need for landlords to highly scrutinize potential renters, as some only intend to pay their rent for a short period of time in order to set themselves up to occupy the space unlawfully.
Ethics and morals aside, many landlords who rely on the income from their commercial properties find squatters and squatting rights to be a nuisance. Some simply aren't aware of what they can or cannot do when dealing with squatters. This short guide will help clear up any lingering questions regarding squatting, squatters, and squatters’ rights in the U.S.
What Are Squatter Rights?
As we’ve highlighted before, there are states that have protections in place for squatters. These adverse possession laws, known as “Squatters’ Rights”, allow a squatter to use or inhabit a property providing that the lawful owner does not evict or take action through legal procedure against the squatter – in simpler terms, they are laws protecting the squatter’s right to not be displaced from the property without due notice. In many cases, the rules protect illegal occupants who have lived on the property for a set period of time, for example, in Florida the rules protect illegitimate occupants of a property if they have lived at that property for at least 7 years. More strict adverse possession laws require the squatter to have been paying at least some form of utility or bill associated with the property in question while squatting.
Typically, a decent portion of states require that a landlord go through the standard legal eviction process with squatters, even though they have not paid any rent. This includes serving illegitimate tenants with an eviction notice through mail or in conjunction with the local authorities. Essentially, squatters in these states are to be treated like legitimate renters who have not paid rent. Adverse possession laws can amount to heavy loss for a landlord, given that squatters — by simply paying the HOA fees, taxes, and other costs associated with the property within the set period of time (depending on their state) get to obtain ownership of the property under these protections.
What is a Squatter
By definition, a squatter is an individual who actively inhabits a parcel of land or a building that they have no actual legal right to occupy. Squatters do not pay any rent and do not have lawful documentation stating they own the property, are a legal tenant, or that they have been given permission to occupy the area.
Squatting vs. Trespassing
Squatting is often wrongfully confused with trespassing. By definition, a trespasser is someone who gains access to the property through an illegal entry, and furthermore doesn’t have usage of utilities, or any furniture. Understandably, trespassers are without any form of a prior lease as well. By law, trespassers can be removed for violation of local loitering or trespassing laws.
A squatter, on the other hand, may have legal protections for remaining on the property, providing they can provide evidence of tenant rights such as utility bills or tax documents. Squatters may be able to win an adverse possession claim depending on the specific laws of their state of occupancy. If a scenario were to play out wherein a squatter is able to provide these forms of documentation police will not remove them from the property, and the property owner gets burdened with the tedious and costly task of taking them to court to get the ownership issue resolved.
Why Do Squatters Have Rights?
In many ways, the squatters’ rights that exist today are modernized remnants of the homestead laws from early settlement periods that allowed the citizens who left the major population areas for the country to eventually own the land and homes they built for themselves and occupied in the otherwise unsettled parts of the country. To be fair, even those homestead laws came from similar provisions of the common law of medieval England. Squatting was an extremely popular act back in those days, as the peasants who could not afford to pay the king’s taxes would seek alternate means of shelter. Surprisingly, the King’s court would regularly rule in their favor in occupancy disputes, providing the legal owner of the affected property neglected to take any action within a specific time-period.
The rules and processes surrounding squatters has been iterated on across generations and borders, sometimes including generally bizarre practices (like throwing 4 axes from the center of a contested area to define the area of the squatter’s legal ownership), but generally remain consistent in protecting individuals who unlawfully seize possession of a property and occupy it consistently for a certain period of time A guiding thought behind this, is that in their occupancy of the property over such a long period of time, they may actually have a stronger claim to the property than the rightful owner. This idea makes much more sense when the property in question has been abandoned by its owner, but squatting in an abandoned property isn’t always the case. Regardless, no matter how far back squatting can be traced, it remains unchanged that squatting is an incredibly common ploy used by some to take possession of abandoned or neglected properties.
How to Prevent Squatting
It is extremely important for any property owner to be familiar with the squatting laws of the states that their properties are located in. The most important and helpful thing that landlords must do to prevent and/or solve the issue of squatters is knowledge. A firm understanding of squatters’ rights, and by extension, landlords’ rights, is the best weapon to be armed with when it comes to adverse possession laws and squatting. Once a landlord knows what they can or cannot do, and what a squatter must do to gain control of a property, preventative measures can be taken. Below are a few best practices to help prevent squatters from occupying a property.
First and foremost, the absolute best way to prevent a squatter from taking up illegitimate residency on any land or property is to regularly maintain and “patrol” the property. Properties that get regularly visited and are constantly maintained are tough targets for squatters, who rely on property owner negligence and not getting caught for the duration of their stay. For properties where this isn’t particularly feasible, other steps can be taken such as the installation of a security system, cameras, and even “Do Not Trespass” signage. Motion activated flood lights are a popular addition that tend to scare away the less bold would-be squatters, while some owners may have to go the extra mile and hire a security team or property management company to keep unwanted guests off the premises.
Because many of the adverse possession laws have made the squatters’ point of entry a focus when differentiating between squatters and trespassers, securing the property is not only an amazing deterrent, but a possible legal advantage. Any entryway into a property or onto land should be secured and made inaccessible to any persons not meant to gain access. This may seem like a piece of costly common sense, but if it can be proven that the squatter entered illegally, they are no longer considered squatters, but mere trespassers.
Not all squatters are opportunist passers-by, however. Many squatters are former tenants, who either resorted to squatting due to unfortunate circumstances, or applied for tenancy with the sole intention to become a squatter. In the case of the latter, it is highly advised that landlords have prospective tenants go through a thorough screening, to ensure that there are no ill-intended tenants occupying the property.
How to Evict a Squatter
Considering the law protecting squatters’ rights, it is important that landlords take careful measures when attempting to evict a squatter. Most squatters know their adverse possession laws, so it is important that property owners know them as well. To safely evict a squatter, here are the steps a landlord should take:
- Determine if the situation is squatting or trespassing.
Trespassers can be removed from a property no questions asked. As we’ve mentioned before, there is legal difference between a squatter and a trespasser, and if you can confidently show that the occupant has gained illegal entry to the property, they can be treated as a trespasser, and removed immediately.
- Contact the local police.
No matter what, the earlier you reach out to the local authorities, the stronger your case will be in the future, should the problem continue. The police will file an official report, which can be utilized if proceedings enter a courtroom. Sure, in a best-case scenario, if the illegitimate occupant can't come up with proof of squatting, they will be removed from the property – but ultimately if this doesn’t happen, the most crucial thing to remember about squatter protections is that they are exponentially weaker the more evidence and documentation an owner can provide to demonstrate their efforts to remove the individual(s) from their property.
- Begin the legal eviction process.
The actual process may vary from state to state, but whatever the law may require, it is the only legal way to handle squatters. In most cases a notice of eviction is required, in some, an unlawful detainer lawsuit must be filed. Proceed with the legal filings, and then follow whatever steps are required by the state to remove the squatters from the premises. Local law enforcement may be required for the actual removal, or further litigation may be required.
- Remove any possessions belonging to the squatter from the property.
Again, this step should be taken with the state laws in mind. Owners cannot simply throw away squatters’ belongings or sell them. In many states, the owner must allow time for the items to be retrieved.
Which states have squatters’ rights?
Squatters’ rights exist in some form or another in all 50 states of the U.S. Most adverse possession laws are based on time statutes and can be divided into two categories. *
The squatters’ laws in the below states require that the squatter has lived on the property in question for 20 years or more:
- Louisiana (30 years)
- New Jersey (30 years)
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Ohio (21 years)
- Pennsylvania (21 years)
- South Dakota
Squatters’ laws in the below selection of states have protections for individual who have lived on the property in question for 19 years or less:
- Alabama (10 years)
- Alaska (10 years)
- Arizona (10 years)
- Arkansas (7 years)
- California (5 years)
- Colorado (18 years)
- Connecticut (15 years)
- Florida (7 years)
- Indiana (10 years)
- Iowa (10 years)
- Kansas (15 years)
- Kentucky (15 years)
- Michigan (15 years)
- Minnesota (15 years)
- Mississippi (10 years)
- Missouri (10 years)
- Montana (5 years)
- Nebraska (10 years)
- Nevada (15 years)
- New Mexico (10 years)
- New York (10 years)
- Oklahoma (15 years)
- Oregon (10 years)
- Rhode Island (10 years)
- South Carolina (10 years)
- Tennessee (7 years)
- Texas (10 years)
- Utah (7 years)
- Vermont (15 years)
- Virginia (15 years)
- Washington (10 years)
- West Virginia (10 years)
- Wyoming (10 years)
*Please note that there are other factors to consider for each state, i.e., some of the states listed above require the squatter to possess a deed, some may require that they have paid taxes during their occupancy, etc. There are even states where if the squatter can produce the required documentation, the number of eligible occupation years may be reduced.
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