Squatters’ Rights: A Guide to State Law & How-To Evict
For landlords, the ideal tenant is one that pays rent consistently and on time. A squatter would be the opposite of the dream renter.
Property owners around the globe have been paying close attention to squatting. Most states have squatters’ rights, which allows someone who lives in your home for a certain amount of time to gain legal title to your property — all without paying you a dime of rent.
Many residential and commercial property owners are now apprehensive about leaving their buildings unoccupied due to concerns that onlookers may view it as a squatting opportunity. Even landlords seeking tenants must be exceptionally vigilant when it comes to screening potential renters, as some may pay their rent for a short period of time before deciding to occupy the space unlawfully.
But what, exactly, are the legalities surrounding squatting? And how should landlords who are being affected by this phenomenon go about addressing it?
These are the questions we’ll be answering in today’s post. But first, let’s cover the basics.
What are squatters’ rights?
Squatters rights refer to laws that allow a squatter to use or inhabit another person’s property in the event that the lawful owner does not evict or take action against the squatter.
Typically, squatters rights laws only apply if an individual has been illegitimately occupying a space for a specific period of time. In New York, for example, a squatter can be awarded “adverse possession” under state law if they have been living in a property for 10 years or more.
It’s important to note, however, that each state has its own laws surrounding this topic. This means that how squatting is approached and dealt with varies greatly depending on where it occurs.
Who is a squatter?
A squatter is any individual who decides to inhabit a piece of land or a building in which they have no legal right to occupy. The squatter lives in the building or on the property they select without paying rent and without lawful documentation stating they own the property, are a law-abiding tenant or that they have permission to use or access the area.
Squatting vs. trespassing
A squatter should not be confused with a trespasser. A trespasser breaks into the property through an illegal entry and doesn’t have utilities, furniture or any form of a prior lease. Due to this, trespassers can be removed for violation of local loitering or trespassing laws.
However, a squatter may have grounds for remaining on the property if they’re able to provide evidence of tenant rights (e.g. utility bills or tax documents) or gain an adverse possession claim, depending on their state’s specific laws. If a squatter provides these forms of documentation,
whether true or falsified, police will not remove them from the property. The property owner would have to take them to court to get the ownership issue resolved.
Which states have squatters’ rights?
Squatters rights, also known as “adverse possession” laws, exist in all 50 states of the U.S. How and when these laws are enforced differ greatly from state to state, however.
The below states have a squatters law that requires the individual to have lived on the property in question for 20 years or more:
Meanwhile, the following states have a squatters law that requires the individual to have lived on the property in question for 19 years or less:
Important note: Some of the states listed above require the squatter to possess a deed, or to have paid taxes during their occupancy, while others do not. In some states, if the squatter can produce the required documentation, the number of years may be reduced.
How to protect your property from squatters
The best way to protect your vacant property from squatters is to screen and select the right tenants. You should prioritize potential tenants with a history of paying rent promptly without any potential red flags, such as poor credit or a past eviction. Streamline this process with AAOA’s tenant credit check today!
By screening potential tenants, a landlord can opt for great renters that will not only take care of the property but also pay their rent promptly. Ultimately, this type of tenant is much less likely to become a holdover tenant or squatter.
If your property is vacant, you’ll want to proactively keep an eye out for any unusual activity on your premises and set up deterrents. Some great options include:
- Installing an alarm system.
- Setting up “no trespassing” signs.
- Placing motion-activated lights on your property.
- Hiring a property management company. (This is a great option if you don’t live close enough to your property to regularly check in on it.)
By taking these steps, a landlord can prevent squatters from occupying and claiming possession of the vacant property. The key is to make your home’s entry points inaccessible to potential squatters.
Don’t forget to check in with your state’s squatter laws to ensure you cover all of your bases when protecting your property.
How to evict a squatter
Squatters have access to the same information that landlords have, so it’s important that you arm yourself with all of the necessary facts and steps that it takes to get rid of squatters.
In fact, keeping up-to-date with current laws and regulations is the best first step to take as a property owner — especially since successfully defending property against squatters depends heavily on the landlord’s understanding of the law and their ability to respond promptly.
Below are the permissible steps to take when evicting squatters:
1. Call the police
The more quickly you contact your local law enforcement, the better. They will be able to file an official police report, which you can use in the future if you end up having to pursue an eviction via the court system. The more evidence and documentation you have to demonstrate your efforts to remove the individual(s) from your premises, the stronger your case will be.
Remember, you cannot legally try to intimidate the squatter or forcibly remove them from your property. If you must engage with the individuals who are illegally inhabiting your property, you should have a police officer present.
2. Provide a formal eviction notice
After you’ve notified the authorities that there is an illegal tenant on your property, you’ll need to file an Unlawful Detainer action. The process of filing such an action can vary from state to state, so it’s important to speak with a lawyer or your local court office to ensure you understand all of the required steps.
If the squatter refuses to leave after being ordered to do so, you can take further action by filing a lawsuit. After doing this, a hearing date will be set and both parties will be required to attend. If the courts rule in your favor (which is most likely), the judge will order the police to escort the squatter from the premises. At this point, you will be allowed to change the locks on your property.
4. Remove any possessions left behind
As frustrated as you may be at this point, it’s important to remember that you can’t always just discard any possessions a squatter leaves behind.
Some states require landlords to provide written notice to the squatter stating a deadline by which they must collect their belongings. Because squatters are often difficult to contact, you can protect yourself by having this letter prepared and bringing it to your court hearing. In this same notice, you can disclose what you intend to do should the belongings not be collected by the specified date.
As you follow these recommended steps, be sure to speak to a lawyer or your local judicial office to ensure you are following the proper procedures. If there is any confusion or additional steps that must be taken, they can advise and provide you with the necessary information.
Looking to minimize your risk of a squatting tenant? AAOA offers industry-leading tenant screening services to help you make the most informed decision possible.
The information provided herein is for advisory purposes only and AAOA takes no responsibility for its accuracy. AAOA recommends you consult with an attorney familiar with current federal, state and local laws.