Squatters Rights-Everything Landlords Need to Know

This article offers an in-depth look at squatters' rights, equipping landlords with necessary knowledge on legal protections and eviction strategies. It underscores the need for legal awareness and swift action in managing unauthorized property occupation.

Vivian Tejada
Last Updated
March 8, 2024
Squatters Rights-Everything Landlords Need to Know

As a landlord, you might envision an ideal scenario where all your tenants are cooperative paying renters who have legally moved into your property. However, the reality of property management often presents unexpected challenges, one of which is dealing with squatters. These individuals occupy rental properties often without the owner's permission, creating a situation that can be both stressful and legally complex for property owners.

The discovery of squatters on your property might catch you off guard, but it's important to know that effective strategies and legal avenues exist to address this issue. It's a common misconception that only legal tenants are entitled to certain rights. In truth, squatters also have specific legal protections, and understanding these is crucial for any landlord.

Dealing with squatters requires prompt action, but navigating these situations within the legal framework is equally important. This guide provides comprehensive insights into squatters' rights, helping you protect your property while adhering to the law. Join us as we discuss everything you need to know about managing squatters on your property, from legal protections to effective eviction strategies.

What is a squatter?

Before we dive in, let's first clarify exactly what we mean by the term 'squatter'.  A squatter is an individual who occupies a property without the legal right or permission from the owner, aiming to establish residency or even claim ownership over time.

Unlike trespassers, who might unlawfully enter a property without intentions of staying long-term, squatters often intend to remain on the premises indefinitely, sometimes going so far as to pay for utilities and make improvements to the property to strengthen their claim.

This situation poses unique challenges for property owners, as squatters can acquire certain legal rights over time, complicating the eviction process. Understanding and addressing the issue of squatting requires property owners to navigate a complex interplay of laws and regulations designed to balance the rights of property owners with those of individuals who occupy property without formal authorization.

Why do squatters have rights?

Squatters' rights might seem surprising, but they play a significant role in property law. These rights prevent owners from forcibly removing individuals unlawfully occupying a property without a legal eviction notice.

Squatters can even claim legal property ownership through adverse possession laws in some states. For instance, in New York, squatters' rights can be established in as little as 30 days, highlighting the importance of landlords acting swiftly when they discover squatters in their properties.

The concept of squatters' rights originated to help urban residents find affordable housing. They were a legal right meant to allow people to settle in abandoned or unused properties or to build homes on unclaimed land. The intent was to prevent property owners from taking the law into their own hands, encouraging resolution through legal channels instead of potential physical confrontations.

For landlords, dealing with squatters can be a complex and delicate matter. Direct engagement with squatters can often lead to challenging and sometimes dangerous situations. It’s important for property owners to understand their legal rights and responsibilities and to handle such situations with care, preferably seeking legal advice or assistance from professionals experienced in property law to resolve these issues effectively and safely.

What rights do squatters have?

Squatters have specific legal protections under the law. They cannot be forcibly removed from a property without prior notice. In many states, landlords must serve eviction notices to squatters like regular tenants.

The legal system often treats squatters similarly to tenants who have breached their rental agreements. For landlords, it's crucial to recognize that squatters are entitled to their own legal eviction process. Neglecting this procedure can weaken a landlord’s case in court.

Adverse possession claim

A key aspect of squatters' rights under adverse possession laws, is that squatters can claim ownership of property they've occupied illegally. This concept may be frustrating for property owners, but it's more challenging for squatters to succeed if the landlord follows legal procedures.

Adverse possession is a squatter's primary argument in court. To acquire land or property ownership, they must meet certain criteria, including a specific period of occupancy. This period varies by state, typically ranging from 10 to 20 years. However, in states like Utah, Tennessee, Florida, and Arkansas, the period is as short as 7 years. New Jersey presents the most stringent requirement, demanding 30 years of occupancy.

Criteria to claim adverse possession

Before a squatter can claim a property, they must adhere to these guidelines:

  • Occupy the property for a specified number of years
  • Maintain continuous possession
  • Inform the property owner of their occupancy
  • Avoid signing any lease agreement with the owner
  • Pay property taxes during their stay

Paying property taxes is a strategy squatters use to eventually claim the legal title and ownership through claiming adverse possession. Property owners can safeguard against such claims by paying their property taxes in a timely manner.

It’s important to distinguish between squatters' rights and tenants' rights. Each state has distinct laws governing these rights, particularly in eviction processes. Squatters' rights typically don't apply to former tenants, except those who overstay post-lease without fulfilling payment obligations.

Understanding squatting vs. trespassing

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. 

Which states have squatters' rights?

Squatters' rights are recognized in various forms across all 50 states in the United States. However, the specific requirements and the time periods required for a squatter to make a successful adverse possession claim vary significantly from state to state.

Some notable examples include:

  • Nebraska: Squatters can claim adverse possession after 10 years of continuous occupation.
  • Nevada: A 15-year occupation period is required for squatters to make a claim.
  • New Mexico: Here, adverse possession claims are set at 10 years.
  • New York: Squatters must occupy a property for 10 years to claim rights.
  • Oklahoma: This state requires a 15-year occupation period for adverse possession.
  • Oregon: Similar to several other states, Oregon has a 10-year requirement.

In addition, there are other states where squatters' rights are recognized, albeit with varying time frames and specific legal conditions. These states include New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

A unique case is Alaska, where squatters must demonstrate exclusive possession under color of title for at least 7 years and a total uninterrupted possession of at least 10 years to claim adverse possession.

Landlords need to be aware that squatters' rights are not just theoretical; they are a part of the legal system in every state. The duration of occupation required for a squatter to claim rights over a property can vary widely, making it essential for property owners to familiarize themselves with the laws specific to their state.

How to evict a squatter: 6 strategies

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 property owners in every state should be aware of before initiating eviction proceedings against a squatter: 

1. Move quickly

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 start eviction proceedings for evicting squatters immediately puts your property at risk for an adverse possession claim.

Just ensure you know of any legal claims the squatter has made on your rental property before attempting to evict them.

2. Determine if they are squatters or trespassers

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 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 learn about squatters until much later. Unauthorized occupants who have lived on your property for over a month could claim squatters' rights and avoid being forcibly removed. 

3. Call local law enforcement

Whether squatters have been on your property for a day or a month, your first action should be to call the police. Never try to remove a squatter yourself. In many cases, police presence is enough to make squatters leave.

Even if police are not able to evict the squatter immediately, you can at least file a police report, which serves as evidence in court of your efforts to have them removed.

4. Send a formal eviction notice

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. Check how many days you need to give a squatter to leave your property. Send the eviction letter via mail and request a return receipt from USPS.

Again, you must follow these steps because they serve as a paper trail of your legal efforts to remove the squatter from your property and show your willingness to follow the law.

5. File an unlawful detainer lawsuit

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, resulting in the police removing the squatter by force.

6. Follow the law when removing squatters’ belongings

Lastly, once you have the legal OK to remove squatters from your property, remember that 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 to court to streamline the process. 

How real estate investors can protect their properties from squatters

Evictions involving squatters usually arise 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:

Keep up with property taxes

In most cases, squatters are awarded property titles because they've been paying taxes on the property for an extended amount of time. The owner either failed to pay taxes on their property or couldn't provide proof of payment. 

Keep an eye on your property

If you can't visit your home in person regularly, hire a property management company to drop in at least once a month. Utilities are paid monthly, so you don't want to give a squatter the chance to get a utility under their name. 

Stay up-to-date with home renovations.

Ensure windows, doors, and other entry points 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 make it their own. 

Install security measures

To effectively secure your property against unauthorized access and squatters, another option is to adopt a comprehensive approach to security measures. This includes the installation of no trespassing signs to clearly demarcate private property, the utilization of motion-activated lights to deter potential intruders under the cover of darkness, and the implementation of robust alarm systems or security cameras.

For detailed insights and practical solutions on bolstering tenant safety and securing your rental property, consider exploring Landlord Gurus' article on landlord responsibility for tenant safety, which covers the importance of cameras, alarms, and other essential security features. These steps not only help in deterring squatters but also play a significant role in ensuring the overall safety and security of your tenants.

Carefully screen tenants

Unfortunately, previous tenants could turn into squatters who stay past the duration of their lease rental 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.

Get comprehensive landlord insurance

Get comprehensive landlord insurance to help mitigate the risk of property damage by squatters and tenants. In many cases, squatters 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.

Know that squatters are not always strangers

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.

The importance of understanding squatter's rights-Protect your legal ownership

Understanding and addressing the issue of squatters is crucial for landlords and real estate investors. While squatters have certain legal protections, being proactive and well-informed about your rights and responsibilities as a property owner can significantly reduce the risk of squatter-related complications.

Regular property maintenance, effective tenant screening, and staying informed about state-specific squatter laws are key to protecting your property. Additionally, in the event of a squatter situation, it's essential to act swiftly and legally to safeguard your rights.

Remember, the best defense against squatters combines vigilance, legal knowledge, and strategic action. With the insights and tips provided in this guide, you're well-equipped to handle squatters effectively, ensuring the security and profitability of your property investments.

Squatter rights FAQs

Why do squatters rights even exist?

Squatters' rights, or adverse possession laws, exist to address situations where land or property is abandoned or not being actively used by the legal  or owner's consent These laws were initially designed to encourage the productive use of land and resolve disputes over property ownership.

They protect individuals who have occupied a property for a significant period, ensuring that owners cannot neglect their property rights for too long without consequences.

Is squatting legal in Michigan?

In Michigan, squatting is not legal in the sense of occupying someone's property without permission. However, Michigan does recognize adverse possession laws. Squatters can potentially claim legal ownership of a property if they openly and continuously occupy it for a period of 15 years, pay taxes, and meet other specific legal requirements for adverse possession.

It's important to note that these are civil matters, and squatting can still be considered trespassing under criminal law.

Can police remove squatters in California?

In California, police can remove squatters if their occupancy is considered trespassing, typically when they have recently occupied a property without the owner's permission. However, suppose squatters have been residing on a property for an extended period and claim they have rights to the property (for example, through adverse possession, showing utility bills, a lease agreement, or paying property taxes).

In that case, the situation becomes a civil matter. In such cases, the property owner may need to go through the legal eviction process to remove the squatters.

Important Note: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as legal, accounting, or tax advice, nor should it be used as a substitute for such services. Always consult your own legal, accounting, or tax counsel before taking any action based on this information.

Vivian Tejada

Vivian is a freelance real estate writer based in Brooklyn, NYC providing SEO blogging services to real estate companies. Her work focuses on educating first-time real estate investors on investment strategy and explaining proptech tools to new customers.

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