The Complete Guide on Squatters' Rights: Virginia
Discovering someone living on your property without permission can be a startling experience for any landlord. Such encounters present a unique set of challenges that require careful navigation of property laws and squatters' rights in Virginia.
Squatters, as they are fittingly known, are individuals who take up residence in a vacant property without the property owner's consent. These unsanctioned residents may assert rights over the property through adverse possession, posing extreme legal hurdles for the legal owner.
If you're looking to understand a squatter's rights in Virginia, keep reading, as this guide will arm you with the insights needed to safeguard your property and uphold your rights as an owner.
Basic requirements for Virginia adverse possession law
For a squatter to prove adverse possession and claim legal ownership of a property in Virginia, they must occupy the property or land for at least 15 consecutive years [Virginia Code - Ann. § 8.01-236,237]. In Virginia, this establishes what's known as a Color of Title, which means the owner is currently missing one or more legal documents for the property, qualifying them as having irregular ownership.
In addition to the Color of Title, squatters must meet five additional requirements before they can gain legal ownership of a property. Those requirements are actual possession, open and notorious possession, exclusive possession, hostile possession, and continuous possession. We'll explore each of these requirements in detail below.
1. Actual possession
Actual possession is when squatters exercise control over the property, meaning they treat the property as their own. If the squatter documents efforts to maintain or improve the property through beautification, such as landscaping and repairs, they can prove this form of adverse possession.
2. Open and notorious possession
Open and notorious possession refers to squatters that make their presence known and obvious. This form of adverse possession can even be met if the property owner investigates the land or structure for suspicion of trespassing, which proves that the squatting is apparent enough for someone to notice it and investigate further.
3. Hostile possession
A hostile claim does not refer to any aggression in how the squatter came to claim the property. Instead, it means the squatter does not have the legal owner's permission to live on the property. Here are several kinds of hostile possessions:
- Simple occupation: Occupying a property with or without knowing that it's someone else's property.
- Good faith mistake: The squatter or trespasser made an honest mistake. In this case, squatters are generally unaware of the property's legal status, or they may argue that they had an incorrect deed.
- Awareness of trespassing: The squatter is aware that they have no legal right to the property, and that they are in fact trespassing.
4. Continuous possession
In Virginia, a squatter can make an adverse possession claim if they have had continuous possession of the building or land for 15 years. This means that the squatter cannot leave the property for any amount of time. If they do, they can lose their right to file an adverse possession claim.
5. Exclusive possession
This form of possession requires squatters to be the sole person living on the property. Squatters wanting to claim exclusive possession must exclude all others, including strangers, other squatters, and the owner, from the property.
Does Virginia allow for "tacking"?
"Tacking" refers to the legal concept where successive periods of adverse possession by different parties may be combined or "tacked" on to one another to meet the required period for an adverse possession claim.
Virginia does allow this practice. However, tacking laws can be nuanced and subject to change, so it's important to consult current legal resources or a qualified Virginia attorney for professional legal advice.
Preventing adverse possession: 6 tips for property owners
Implementing preventive measures is crucial in safeguarding your property against squatters and ensuring your ownership rights remain uncontested, especially during periods of vacancy. By staying proactive and vigilant, you can create a robust defense that significantly reduces the risk of unauthorized occupancy.
- Document and take photographs: Property owners should periodically take photographs and videos of their property. If needed, this visual documentation can serve as evidence in court that shows no improvements, like landscaping or repairs, have been made to the property without the owner's permission.
- Regularly inspect the property: Inspecting your unoccupied property regularly can help identify unlawful occupants who don't have permission to be there. Inspections can help prove active ownership and allow for swift responses to threats.
- Get to know your neighbors: Establishing relationships with neighbors close to the property is a great way to create a free security system. Neighbors can help keep watch over the property, alerting you to any unfamiliar occupants or unusual activity.
- Install proper fencing and signage: A simple, yet effective way to ward off squatters is through proper signage and fencing. "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs can help set boundaries that deter trespassers.
- Take legal action early on: As soon as a trespasser is identified, take legal action. This can include consulting with a lawyer and starting the eviction process.
- Pay property taxes: Another simple way to prevent squatters is to pay property taxes. Consistent tax records can go a long way in proving legal ownership.
Procedures for landlords to remove squatters in Virginia
If a squatter claims adverse possession of your property, there are specific steps you must follow to effectively reclaim your property and avoid any legal issues. We cover this process in detail below.
Initiating an eviction process
In Virginia, the first step to remove squatters in Virginia is to serve them with an eviction notice.
A 5-day written notice to pay rent can be used to evict a squatter. If the squatter does not comply within the specified period of the eviction notice, the property owner can proceed with filing an eviction lawsuit with the local court.
Learn additional ways to evict squatters and holdover tenants here.
Engaging with law enforcement
If the squatter becomes uncooperative, poses a threat, or commits an illegal act, it may become necessary to involve local law enforcement. While police may not be able to remove the trespasser without a court order, they can help maintain peace or assess any possible crimes.
It's always recommended to document your interactions with local law enforcement, which may serve as crucial evidence if the situation escalates to court in the future.
Legal avenues for reclaiming possession of the property
Besides eviction, there is additional legal assistance available to landlords. For instance, you may be able to pursue a lawsuit for trespassing, which may be more effective than an eviction in certain cases of squatting.
No matter which path you choose, it may be necessary to hire a qualified attorney to navigate local property laws and squatter rights in Virginia.
Potential court procedures, costs, and timelines
Property owners should always be prepared for the eviction process to escalate to the courts, and thus, should understand the legal procedures, as well as the doctrine, costs, and timelines involved.
The lawsuit will follow Virginia's specific legal process, but no matter the state, the process generally follows these three steps: filing the complaint, serving the squatter, and awaiting a court date.
Court costs may include everything from filing fees to attorney fees.
Depending on the case's specifics and the court's backlog, the timeline may vary. Landlords and property owners can facilitate the process by being proactive and knowledgeable about Virginia laws.
Special provisions or exceptions
When learning about adverse possession laws in Virginia, it's important to understand unique property regulations and exceptions.
Unclear property boundaries can lead to legal issues for landlords in Virginia. Overlooking a portion of your land is an invitation for squatters to make a claim for adverse possession.
Demarcating property boundaries can help prevent squatters from meeting the requirements for adverse possession and making an eventual claim.
Different rules for government-owned land
As you might expect, government-owned properties are subject to a different set of rules and more detailed laws than private properties.
Squatters may attempt to take over private lands through adverse possession, but claiming legal ownership of government-owned property this way is usually extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, as they would need to occupy the building or land for 15 consecutive years.
Maintaining and reclaiming property ownership in Virginia
By understanding Virginia's squatting laws, you are better positioned to prevent trespassers and maintain rightful ownership of your property. Grasping the basics of adverse possession — namely, the need for continuous occupation for 15 years — is fundamental in recognizing a squatter's potential legal rights.
Taking proactive measures and staying vigilant are key to protecting your property. Conducting regular property checks, keeping rental agreements clear and current, and seeking timely legal advice from property law experts are essential strategies to safeguard against unauthorized occupancy.
Being well-informed allows you to defend your property's legal title successfully, ensuring your real estate investment is prosperous.
Virginia squatters' rights FAQs
What's the difference between squatters and holdover tenants?
A holdover tenant, also referred to as a "tenant at sufferance," is an individual who continues to occupy a rental unit beyond the expiration of their lease. With the landlord's consent, these tenants can remain on the premises, paying rent at the existing rental rate and adhering to the terms of the lapsed lease agreement.
Should the landlord issue a notice to vacate and the holdover tenant fails to comply within the designated period, they may face potential legal repercussions. Once a vacate notice is served, these individuals lose the ability to claim adverse possession, as they are now considered trespassers.
What are the adverse possession requirements in Virginia?
To gain ownership of a property through an adverse possession claim, squatters must occupy a property or land for at least 15 consecutive years. Occupation of the property must also be actual, exclusive, continuous, and open and notorious.
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