Professional squatters are people who move from one property to the next, taking advantage of innocent landlords with vacant property. While you may feel sorry for a squatter who has no place to live, it is also important to protect yourself and your investment from harm caused by unlawful occupants.
What is a Squatter?
A squatter is a person who unlawfully occupies land or property, meaning that they gain access to and reside on your premises without your permission and without paying rent.
While it might seem unbelievable, in some instances, the legal doctrine of adverse possession allows a squatter to acquire title to property by occupying the property for a sufficient period of time–typically more than five years and often more than ten.
Squatters have rights under the law, which means that you must act legally if you discover someone occupying your property without your consent.
How Squatters Gain Access to Your Property
Squatters may come to occupy your property through a number of different ways:
Someone may notice that a home has been vacant for an extended period of time and move in, hoping that an inattentive or absentee property owner will not become aware of their presence.
In extreme cases, they may even turn on the utilities or use a fake lease agreement to make the utility company or authorities believe they are legitimate renters. Squatting in vacant property can sometimes occur when people from out of state inherit a property and don’t hire a property manager to take care of it.
Another way squatting can occur is when a roommate or subtenant who isn’t on the rental agreement refuses to leave when the lease expires and the legal tenants move out. As a landlord, you have no idea who they are because their name isn’t on the lease, but they have assumed possession of your property.
In some instances, your tenant’s roommates might temporarily move out when the move-out inspection is done, then quickly move back in and take possession when you think your property is vacant.
An innocent person can also fall victim to a rental scam and be squatting without even knowing it. Sometimes, con artists advertise a vacant property for rent that they don’t own.
They meet the tenant, collect the first month’s rent and deposit, then turnover the keys and disappear. The victim thinks they have a legitimate lease until the real property owner shows up at the front door wondering what the heck they’re doing in the home.
Is Squatting the Same Thing as Trespassing?
At first glance, it might seem that squatting and trespassing are the same thing. In both instances someone is illegally on your property without permission. But there is a legal difference between a squatter and a trespasser and how you can facilitate their removal.
Trespassing on property is generally a criminal offense that can be handled by the local police or sheriff’s department. A trespasser enters a property for a short period of time, perhaps looking for something to steal or to vandalize your home. If a trespasser decides to stay long enough, they can eventually turn into a squatter, but normally occupying your home isn’t a trespasser’s intent.
Squatting is usually a civil matter that falls under a different area of law. You should still call the police if you find someone on your property and explain the situation, but the authorities may recommend that you institute a civil suit to remove an unauthorized occupant.
Squatters Rights Landlords Should Know
Under the legal theory of adverse possession (sometimes also known as “squatters rights”), a person may acquire legal ownership of a property if they continuously occupy the property for a long enough period of time without the permission of the owner.
In order for adverse possession to occur, the unlawful occupation must:
- Be hostile, meaning without the permission of the owner, even if the owner is unaware the squatter is there;
- Include actual physical occupation;
- Be open and notorious, where anyone looking at the home can see that someone is present;
- Remain exclusive and uninterrupted for a continuous period of time defined by state law.
Generally, a squatter must be served with an eviction notice and subject to the eviction process. Evictions can take several months to complete. However, you may be able to shorten the length of time required by citing health, safety, and welfare concerns.
For example, where the property is not up to code, lacks requisite safety features, is not equipped with water or electricity, or is otherwise unsafe or uninhabitable, you may be able to shorten the eviction process.
Laws in many states also give squatters the right to eventually obtain legal title to your property, after paying the county for property taxes and any other fees associated with transferring your title to the squatter.
The legal resource website Nolo.com has published the State-by-State Rules on Adverse Possession to help learn what your state rules allow. If you think someone is unlawfully occupying your property, it may be a good idea to speak with a real estate attorney in the city your property is located in to understand your rights under the law.
Why a Landlord Should Move Quickly to Evict a Squatter
Once squatting occurs on your property, the clock starts ticking toward the time that the squatter might actually gain legal title to your property. A landlord should deal with squatters immediately once they are discovered, because the more time that passes, the harder it could be to get rid of the squatter:
- Evicting a squatter could take months and thousands of dollars, especially if the squatter attempts to make the legal claim that they are the legitimate owners of your property.
- Lost rental income and possibility of major property damage during the time a squatter occupies your property.
How to Evict a Squatter
The American Apartment Owners Association (AAOA) has published an excellent guide on how to evict an unlawful occupant. According to the AAOA, these are the permissible steps to take handle the eviction:
1. Notify the Police
Immediately contact the police when you discover someone on your property without your consent. If you end up having to evict, the official police report will demonstrate to the court that you made a good faith effort to work within the law to convince the person to leave. After notifying the police, don’t change the locks or turn off the utilities until removal or the eviction process is completed.
2. Serve a Formal Eviction Notice
An eviction notice (also known as an “unlawful detainer” action in some states) is the first step in the eviction process. Although you could try serving the notice yourself, you may wish to hire a real estate eviction attorney who will use a process server to provide formal notice of eviction.
3. File an Eviction Lawsuit
If the unlawful occupant refuses to leave after being served with a formal eviction notice, the next step is to file an eviction lawsuit. Many cities have real estate attorneys who specialize in residential evictions for a fixed fee, excluding court costs such as filing fees. After you go through the eviction process and are awarded a judgment by the court, law enforcement such as the local sheriff will be needed to legally remove the person from your property.
4. Remove Squatter’s Possessions
Most states require the landlord to serve written notice before removing any personal possessions from the property that the squatter left behind. The court may allow you to publish or post the notice on the premises if the illegal occupant has left your property and is difficult to find.
Tips for Preventing Squatting
It can be easier to prevent squatting in the first place than spending the time, effort, and money to remove an unlawful occupant through costly eviction processes. If your property is vacant, ask your property manager to conduct routine inspections of the inside and outside to secure the property and make sure no one has moved in.
To help prevent squatting you can also:
- Make friends with the neighbors and ask them to alert you if they see anyone on the property;
- Ensure that doors and windows remain securely locked at all times;
- Post “No Trespassing” signs on the doors and yard gates;
- Routinely check the property for any signs of entry or occupancy;
- Thoroughly screen prospective tenants by ordering criminal and background reports, and verifying the rental history to learn if the tenant has ever been evicted;
- When you sign a lease with a new tenant, make sure the tenant understands your rules for roommates so that they can be screened before being added to the rental agreement.
Property owners need to be wary of unauthorized occupants. If they learn that a person is squatting on their premises, a property owner must take care to comply with all applicable laws and use proper eviction processes.