If you’re a landlord who has recently discovered the presence of unknown tenants living in one of your properties, you’re probably wondering what to do next. Is this trespassing? Can you simply kick them out?
The answer is not quite so simple, assuming these unexpected tenants are squatters.
We tend to think of squatters in basic, colloquial terms: people who have moved into a property they don’t own or rent and live there without permission. However, you’ve probably also heard the term “squatters rights” and this is a real legal term.
As always, our goal is to provide landlords with the latest information about landlord laws and tenant rights. Now, we’re going to talk about squatting laws and how they may pertain to you. Keep reading to find out more.
What Is a Squatter?
It’s easy to assume that anyone who has gained access to your property without your knowledge would be considered a trespasser. If this were the case, you could call the police and have them removed (and possibly charged) almost immediately.
However, a squatter is someone who has occupied a property for a set period of time–often a number of consecutive years–and in some fashion claims ownership to that property. This action was typically done without the knowledge of the property’s rightful owner.
It is worth noting that the definition of a squatter, as well as the rights that squatters possess, differ when talking about undeveloped land, as opposed to an abandoned development or house. This article focuses on the rights squatters may have if they have taken over a house, condo, or apartment.
What Are Squatter Rights?
As we mentioned earlier, “squatters rights” is, in fact, a legal term. What is the squatters law and how does if affect you as a landlord?
Most commonly, these rights come into play when a landlord discovers the presence of squatters and wants them to leave. Squatters are entitled to a notice of eviction, not unlike a tenant who is in violation of the lease.
However, landlords who are dealing with squatters also need to be aware of adverse possession. Adverse possession refers to the legal process by which some squatters can obtain legal ownership rights to the property they live in. That’s right, squatters may be able to obtain full ownership of your property.
How does this work? The regulations regarding adverse possession vary from state to state and they are not always easy to achieve. For example, a number of states require that squatters pay property taxes on the property for a minimum of seven years in order to obtain adverse possession. This is just one of many qualifications that, as we said, are not that easy to accomplish.
Do All States Have Squatter Rights?
Every state does have laws regarding the eviction of unauthorized tenants (aka squatters). That being said, not all states have specific adverse possession laws.
What that means is that no matter where you live, you should treat the process of evicting squatters with care. However, depending on where you live, you may not need to worry about the transfer of ownership of the property from you to the squatter.
Why Do Squatters Have Rights?
If you’re new to the concept of squatters rights, it can seem a little bit strange. Why have we given rights to people who are occupying a property without permission?
Originally, squatters rights arose from the evolution of British property law. The purpose of these laws was to help determine where one person’s property stopped and another person’s property started.
Later on in the history of the US, squatters rights became more defined in reaction to the growth of urban centers. As the residents of cities looked for ways to access more affordable housing–and protect their rights in the process–squatters rights developed as a way for unhoused people to make use of otherwise abandoned spaces.
How to Evict Squatters Lawfully
Remember, forcing out a squatter without following eviction laws is not entirely unlike forcing out a current tenant. You want to make sure you’re following the proper procedure to avoid legal repercussions. It’s best to consult an attorney about this process but first, let’s take a look at some basic steps you will take.
1. Differentiate Between Squatters vs Trespassers
First, determine whether or not you’re dealing with trespassers. If the unauthorized tenant has only occupied the property for a few weeks or months or they’ve left for a significant period of time and come back, you can likely proceed as if they were trespassers. In this case, go straight to the authorities.
2. Bring in a Third Party to Start the Eviction Process
It’s best not to get involved with squatters on your own. Instead, file for eviction and have the paperwork mailed, served to the squatter, or delivered to the squatter by a police officer. At this point, you can also file an unlawful detainer lawsuit requiring the squatters to relocate.
3. Take Stock of Adverse Possession Laws in Your State
As soon as you become aware of squatters on your property, take action–especially if they know that you’ve become aware of their presence. Remember, adverse possession laws come into play after a certain period of time. The minute you start filing legal claims against the squatters, that clock stops.
Maintain Your Properties and Prevent Squatters from Taking Over
Squatters rights are often surprising to newer landlords. The best way to avoid dealing with squatters on any of your properties is to keep an eye on all of your properties, even those that are currently unoccupied. If you do find yourself facing squatters, make sure to take into account squatters rights before asking them to leave.