Ideally, the only tenants you’ll have to deal with are paying renters who have moved into your property with your consent. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. On rare occasions, people may occupy your rental property without permission. These individuals are commonly referred to as “squatters.”
Discovering squatters on your vacant property can be incredibly stressful. Thankfully, there are actions you can take as a landlord to address the situation while respecting squatters' rights. Many landlords assume that only legal tenants have rights, but rights apply to unauthorized tenants, as well.
When dealing with squatters it's important you act quickly and within the boundaries of the law. This will help protect yourself and your property. Here’s everything you need to know about squatters' rights:
It may be hard to believe, but individuals who unlawfully occupy a property cannot be removed by the homeowner. These individuals have squatters' rights, which allow them to inhabit a property without the owner's consent as long as they have not received an official eviction notice.
In many states, squatters can even assert legal ownership of a property through adverse possession laws. In New York, squatters' rights can be established in as little as 30 days. That’s why it’s important for landlords to act as soon as possible once they find squatters living in their vacant property.
Squatters' rights were created a while back in an attempt to protect urban residents seeking affordable housing. These rights allowed individuals to settle in abandoned homes that were not being used or build their homes upon unclaimed land.
The purpose of squatters' rights is to deter the use of vigilante justice — in other words, to avoid landlords taking matters into their own hands and forcibly removing squatters from their property.
When property owners directly engage with squatters, whether independently or through a third party, it often ends poorly, and could even result in a dangerous situation. Squatters' rights prevent (or at least dissuade) most property owners from confronting squatters in person.
Squatters have the right to not be forcibly removed from the property without prior notice. In most cases, state regulations require landlords to provide eviction notices to unauthorized tenants as they would to regular tenants.
The legal system treats squatters similarly to tenants who have failed to fulfill their rental obligations. The main thing for landlords to keep in mind about squatters' rights is the squatter should have the opportunity to undergo their own eviction process. Without adhering to this process, a landlord’s legal claim may be weakened when presented in court.
Adverse possession laws allow for squatters to claim actual ownership of property that does not belong to them. It can be frustrating to know that someone who has illegally occupied your property has the right to make a claim on it. However, adverse possession of a property is more difficult when the landlord is proceeding according to the law.
A squatter’s biggest weapon in court is adverse possession. By claiming adverse possession, an individual can acquire land or a property title belonging to someone else as long as they meet specific requirements. One of these requirements is years of occupancy.
In most states, the period for squatters to assert adverse possession is between 10 and 20 years. Although in some states, such as Utah, Tennessee, Florida, and Arkansas, squatters can claim adverse possession in as little as 7 years. In New Jersey, the process of obtaining adverse possession is the most challenging, requiring 30 years of occupancy.
Before trying to claim a home they’ve illegally occupied as their own, squatters must adhere to the following guidelines:
Squatters pay property taxes with the hope of taking legal ownership of the property at a later date through adverse possession laws. This, of course, cannot happen if you are actively paying your taxes. If you want to protect your home against adverse possession claims, make sure to pay property taxes on time.
It’s important to note that although squatters have rights, they are not the same as tenants' rights. Each state has its own squatter rights laws and tenants' rights laws. The difference between the two is noted in the eviction process.
Squatters' rights typically do not apply to individuals who were former tenants. The only exception to this would be for tenants who were previously renting a property and intentionally remained or neglected to make payments even after the lease agreement ended.
A trespasser unlawfully enters a home, usually without any intention of residing there. Squatters, on the other hand, enter a property unlawfully but have the intention of either claiming actual ownership of the house or at least establishing permanent residence for a period of time. Squatters often furnish the home, pay for home-related expenses, and arrange for utilities to be connected. This usually happens with abandoned properties.
Local trespassing laws grant police the authority to remove trespassers. However, squatters may have legitimate grounds for occupying the property, especially if they possess supporting documents that strengthen their rights as tenants. These documents could be utility bills, property tax receipts, or an adverse possession claim. If a squatter can present such documentation, the police cannot evict them and the property owner will have to pursue legal action in court.
As mentioned above, evicting squatters looks different from state to state. Eviction laws govern how and when a squatter can be evicted. However, this is what landlords in every state should be aware of before initiating eviction proceedings against a squatter:
Initiate the eviction process as soon as you are aware of the presence of squatters by either calling local law enforcement or sending an official eviction notice. Failing to immediately start eviction proceedings puts your property at risk for an adverse possession claim. Just make sure you are aware of any legal claims the squatter has made on your rental property before attempting to evict them.
If squatters have been on your property for only a few weeks, it’s usually considered a criminal breaking-and-entering incident. In such cases, you can contact local police and ask for the occupants to be removed.
It's less likely that a squatter will take actual possession of an owner-occupied property. However, if you own property out of state, you may not find out about squatters until much later. Unauthorized occupants who have lived on your property for more than a month could claim squatters' rights and avoid being forcibly removed.
Whether squatters have been on your property for a day or for a month your first course of action should be to call the police. Never try to remove a squatter yourself. In many cases, the presence of police is enough to make squatters leave. Even if police are not able to immediately evict the squatter, you can at least file a police report which serves as evidence in court of your efforts to have them removed.
Some squatters are keenly aware of their rights and will refuse to leave the property even in the presence of law enforcement. If a squatter refuses to leave, your next step would be to send them a formal eviction notice giving them a certain amount of time to vacate the premises.
The amount of time you provide in the eviction letter will be determined by state law. Make sure to check how many days you need to give a squatter to leave your property. Send the eviction letter via mail and ask for a return receipt from USPS.
Again, it’s important you follow these steps because it serves as a paper trail of your legal efforts to remove the squatter from your property and shows your willingness to follow the law.
In the event that the squatter fails to leave the property within the designated time frame stated in the eviction notice, you can initiate a legal proceeding commonly known as an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Both parties involved in an unlawful detainer lawsuit are obligated to attend the court hearing. If the squatter does not appear in court, the judge will likely rule in your favor which will result in the police removing the squatter by force.
Lastly, once you have the legal OK to have squatters removed from your property, keep in mind you may need to wait before disposing of their belongings. As frustrating as this ordeal may be, there are laws governing squatters’ possessions.
Certain states have regulations mandating property owners issue written notice to the squatter, specifying a deadline by which they must retrieve their personal items. You can draft this notice and bring it with you to court to streamline the process.
Evictions involving squatters usually come up when prominent real estate firms acquire a previously vacant property. Squatter evictions are less likely to occur for independent landlords, but they do happen.
The best approach to handling squatters is to prevent their presence altogether. Here are a few suggestions as to how you can protect your property from squatters, particularly when it remains unoccupied:
In most of the cases where squatters are awarded property titles, it's because they’ve been paying taxes on the property for an extended amount of time while the owner either failed to pay taxes on their property or couldn’t provide proof of payment.
If you can’t visit your home in person on a regular basis, hire a property management company to drop in at least once a month. Utilities are paid on a monthly basis, so you don't want to give a squatter the chance to get a utility under their name.
Make sure windows, doors and other points of entry are in good condition even when the property is not occupied. This will save you hundreds of dollars on a potential eviction process if someone decides to break into your home to try to make it their own.
You should also consider putting up no trespassing signs, setting up motion-activated lights, and installing an alarm system or security cameras to dissuade intruders from trespassing.
Unfortunately, previous tenants could turn into squatters who stay past the duration of their lease agreement. Make sure to conduct thorough tenant screening — including carefully reviewing rental applications and contacting past landlords to see what kind of tenant you are about to sign a lease with.
Make sure to get comprehensive landlord insurance to help mitigate the risk of property damage by squatters and tenants. In many cases, squatters who are no longer allowed to occupy your property won’t leave peacefully and will retaliate by intentionally causing damage. Some landlord insurance plans even provide liability coverage in the event of a lawsuit.
Squatter rights apply to the intentional and accidental occupation of a home. For example, if your neighbor builds a fence that takes up space past your property line, they could potentially claim ownership of that land if you fail to voice any objections.
You should also know that squatters are not always strangers. An acquaintance may try to hide their intention to squat by offering free work in exchange for a place to stay. In some states, if a person can provide oral or written evidence of such an agreement, they could claim squatter rights when they are unwilling to leave.
While real estate investors hope that they never have to deal with squatters, unfortunately, sometimes it happens. By understanding squatters’ rights and how to legally evict squatters if needed — as well as taking steps to prevent squatters in the first place — you’ll help ensure a smooth real estate investing experience.
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