Did you know that if someone lives in your home for a long enough period of time, they could actually gain legal title to your property without paying you a single dollar?
As hard as that might be to believe, the fact is that most states have squatters’ rights. Keep reading to learn how to protect your property and what to do if you discover someone occupying your property.
How Does Squatting Happen?
Squatting occurs when someone occupies your property without your permission and without paying any rent.
Under the legal doctrine of adverse possession, a person who enters the property unlawfully can eventually become the legal owner without paying for it. After the person occupies your property for a certain amount of time set by state law, legal title can be transferred.
It’s important that you remove a squatter from your property as soon as they are discovered, but the process isn’t always easy. Because there’s no rental agreement in place, traditional landlord-tenant laws don’t always apply.
One might think that because there’s no contract to rent, unlawful occupants are easy to remove. But that is not always true.
The Difference Between Squatting and Trespassing
To make matters more confusing, before beginning removal procedures, you need to figure out if someone is trespassing or squatting on your property, because the rules for removing them are different.
Both squatters and trespassers occupy your property without your permission. Whether an individual is squatting or trespassing depends on their intent in occupying your property and the length of time they are there.
For example, a trespasser may enter a vacant home to steal from or vandalize the property, but without an intent to take up residence. If you learn of a trespasser, it usually just takes a phone call to the local police department to have the trespasser removed from your property.
On the other hand, squatters generally intend to reside on the property. At times, they canvas the neighborhood looking for an empty home to move into. On occasion, squatters may even draw up a phony lease agreement to turn on utilities or to convince authorities that they have the right to occupy the home.
After the squatter has lived in your property openly and for an extended period of time, they may try to claim ownership of your home. To remove a squatter, you’ll first need to file a police report and then proceed through the eviction process. If the property is unsafe, uninhabitable, or not up to code, you may be able to expedite the process.
How Squatters Get Rights
According to the legal resource website Nolo.com, there are generally four legal requirements for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim to your property:
The possession or occupation of the property must be considered “hostile,” or an invasion of or contrary to the owner’s rights. If the owner consents, the occupation is not considered hostile.
Actual possession means the person is physically occupying your property. In most instances, a person who merely leaves their belongings or possessions on the property cannot establish actual possession.
- Open and Notorious
Open and notorious means that the person is not hiding their occupation of the property. They may introduce themselves to the neighbors and they are not secretive about being on the site.
- Exclusive and Continuous
Exclusive and continuous means the person is occupying your home for an extended period of time without interruption. They can’t leave for months and then return, and they can’t pretend to be the landlord and lease your home to somebody else. The amount of time required to be considered “continuous” varies from state to state, and generally runs from a minimum of seven years all the way up to 20 years of continuous possession.
Understanding Squatters’ Rights
It might seem unfair to give someone rights who is illegally on your property. However, laws protecting squatters are intended to balance private property interests against the public’s interests of having an occupant physically present and caring for property.
If a person can demonstrate hostile, adverse, open and notorious, and exclusive and continuous occupation, most states and local jurisdictions require you to proceed with an eviction.
How to Evict a Squatter
Squatting often occurs in properties that are left vacant for most of the year, such as second homes, property purchased by an out-of-state investor who hasn’t seen the home in years, or property that is inherited by someone who has no interest in owning real estate.
Once you determine that you have a person occupying your property without your permission, you can begin the eviction process. Although eviction laws vary based on landlord-tenant laws, these are the general steps to follow when doing a residential eviction:
- Review Applicable Landlord-Tenant Laws
Read the landlord-tenant laws for your state and jurisdiction. Because the laws governing evictions can be complicated, many landlords hire a real estate attorney who specializes in residential evictions. An attorney can guide you on the most efficient course for removing the unauthorized occupant.
- Offer an Incentive to Leave
Residential evictions can easily cost thousands of dollars and take months to complete from start to finish, depending on the state your property is located in. Offering a cash incentive to encourage an unlawful occupant to leave may save you money in the long run compared to expensive legal fees and court costs.
If the person does agree to accept your incentive to leave, consider having your attorney draw up a legal document that can be used in court in case the person reneges on the deal.
- Serve a Notice of Eviction
A third-party, such as a process server, can be used to serve the necessary written notice of eviction. Landlord-tenant laws often provide the person service with a few days to willingly leave. If they don’t leave, the next step is to file the eviction with the court.
You’ll need to prepare and file the necessary pleadings, pay a filing fee, and provide the court with proof that all of the requisite documents were properly served. After that, a hearing date for your eviction may be scheduled.
- Sue the Squatter in Court
On the day of the hearing, the court will likely ask for evidence indicating when the unlawful occupant was first discovered on your property, the approximate length of time the squatter has been occupying your property, and proof that the squatter was properly served with an eviction notice and other court documents.
- Remove the Squatter
Provided that the person hasn’t occupied your property long enough to gain legal title , the court should rule in your favor. When you win an eviction lawsuit, you will receive a court order, often called a Writ of Restitution, that gives you the legal right to remove the unlawful occupant. The writ is sent to the local constable or sheriff, who will assign an authorized person to accompany you to the property, and physically effectuate the eviction from the premises, if necessary.
- Take Back Your Property
If the squatter has left any possessions behind, some states require you to serve another notice that they need to collect their belongings. In most cases, the attorney who represents you in the eviction proceedings will include this request as part of the eviction process. After you take your property back, you’ll be able to make any needed repairs to make the home rent-ready for a new tenant, or to put it on the market for sale.
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To help avoid having squatting occur in the first place, property owners can conduct routine property inspections, make sure vacant property is secure, and have a home physically inspected as part of the normal due diligence when buying a property. After an unlawful occupant takes possession, a property owner must go through eviction processes because in the eyes of the law, squatters have rights.