Property owners have many obligations, and often, concerns like squatters can go hand-in-hand with those responsibilities. Losing your property to a squatter can be a real issue for property owners and there may be more to it than you would think.
These are individuals who make themselves at home on your property without your permission, and sometimes without your knowledge. Unfortunately, squatters’ rights or adverse possession can make this a nightmare for the homeowner.
In this guide we will cover the following:
- What is a Squatter?
- What Defines a Squatter?
- Common Signs of Squatters
- Is Squatting Legal?
- What are Squatters’ Rights?
- Which States Have Squatter Rights?
- What is Adverse Possession?
- Adverse Possession: Basic Elements
- States with Adverse Possession Laws
- Example of Adverse Possession
- Ways to Prevent Squatters and Adverse Possession
- Can Police Remove Squatters?
- How to Evict Squatters
What is a Squatter?
Squatters are any individuals who take up residence in a home, building, or on a property without paying any rent to the owner. They don’t have permission to be in the space. The property owners may not even know the squatters are living there.
What Defines a Squatter?
The American Apartment Owners Association (AAOA) defines a squatter as “any individual who decides to inhabit a piece of land or a building in which they have no legal right to occupy.” Property owners or landlords may encounter three types of squatters:
- Tenants at Will or Tenants at Sufferance
- Land Claimers
Individuals who trespass onto the property, break-and-enter into the home, and then take up residence can be considered squatters.
These types of squatters may target vacation homes or other types of property where the owner doesn’t live nearby.
Tenants at Will or Sufferance are not traditional squatters. The property owner knows these individuals are in the apartment, home, or other dwellings.
At one point in time, they may have had a lease, but it expired, and now they refuse to sign a new one or vacate the property. This type of squatting sometimes is called the “worn-out-welcome”.
Land claimers are squatters who came to the property to try to take it over, not by legal purchase but by squatting. If the right amount of time passes, they may obtain ownership through adverse possession.
Common Signs of Squatters
- An individual moved into a vacant home with few belongings and there were no moving trucks
- Water bottles, jugs of water and anything else that would indicate someone doesn’t have access to running water
- Anything that would indicate the person doesn’t have access to power. Candlelight in the home, small fires, etc.
- Forced signs of entry: broken windows, pried open garage doors, and other broken/boarded up entry points to the home
Is Squatting Legal?
Squatting is not legal. In many cases, squatters can be considered trespassers—individuals living in or on the property without the owner’s permission and/or knowledge. Trespassing also is illegal.
However, some squatters may be on the property with the owner’s knowledge, as Tenants at Will. Squatters also can have rights that make it hard to remove them from the property.
What are Squatter’s Rights?
According to Cornell, Squatter’s Rights, also known as Adverse Possession, is a doctrine under which a person in possession of land owned by someone else may acquire valid title to it, so long as certain common law requirements are met, and the adverse possessor is in possession for a sufficient period of time, as defined by a statute of limitations.
While homeowners have the right to keep unwanted trespassers off their property and out of their homes, squatters can fall into a different category.
Property owners may not resort to intimidation or threats to remove the squatters. Owners also can’t change the locks or install additional security to keep the squatters out.
If the squatters have turned on the utilities, like water and electricity, the owner also can’t have those shut off.
Owners may wonder why do squatters even get these rights? Squatting isn’t something new. Squatting dates back centuries and is global.
In the United States, it once was encouraged by the government as part of the westward expansion. Squatter rights or preemption actually led to the 1862 Homestead Act.
Which States Have Squatter Rights?
49 states have squatter rights that depend on the time of occupation and other factors. In some states, squatters can claim possession of a property if they have some sort of documentation linking them to the property, even if the documentation is inaccurate or not legally binding.
Tax requirements also vary state by state. Trespassers may be obligated to pay taxes for the time they lived on the property in some states, but not all, so it is important to research your state’s local laws.
For example, squatters’ rights in Texas might look different than in the surrounding states. NOLO states, “As a general rule in Texas, one’s ownership of land must be in writing to be enforceable.”
Whereas in other parts of the country a verbal claim may hold weight, squatters’ rights in Texas are less lenient. In most states, adverse possession sets in once the individual has inhabited the land for a set period of time, for example, 15 years. In Texas, things get a little more complicated.
Instead of having one standard time period required to establish squatter’s rights, Texas has different requirements for different circumstances.
The details of each situation are out of the scope of this discussion, but it goes to show the importance of understanding local laws.
If you do not know your rights and how to protect them, you put your property at risk of being claimed by a neighbor or a complete stranger.
This is especially important for out-of-state landlords to understand, given that they may be less familiar with the state laws than homeowners who live locally and are not nearby to easily see the warning signs of a potential squatter.
What is Adverse Possession?
Investopedia defines adverse possession as a “legal doctrine that allows a person who possesses or resides on someone else’s land for an extended period to claim legal title to that land.”
In addition, if that individual can prove adverse possession legally, they may not be required to make any payment for that property to the owner.
Adverse possession may be obtained by a trespasser, a tenant no longer under a lease, and by land claimers. Unfortunately for property owners, adverse possession even happens unintentionally by neighbors.
For example, if you own a property with several acres and the property line is unclear, your neighbor over time may gain a portion of your land through adverse possession.
Adverse Possession: Basic Elements
According to the Legal Dictionary, states across the country may have different statutes regarding adverse possession, but each does feature the same basic elements. Legal Dictionary states that for it to be adverse possession it must be:
- An actual possession, meaning the individual(s) must have taken physical possession living on the land or in the home and acting as a property owner
- Open and notorious: the individual(s) possession is obvious to any observer
- Exclusive occupation by the individual(s)
- Hostile: the individual(s) are using the property without the owner’s consent and/or knowledge
- Undercover of claim, which happens when the squatter claims the property based on a legal error that leads to the assumption that the individual is the actual owner
- Continuous and uninterrupted: all legally defined acts have to happen within a specific time
To activate adverse possession in many states, squatters must conform to additional requirements. These include but are not limited to making improvements to the home or property, proving they did not take the home/property by force, and filing their state’s legal claim to that property.
States with Adverse Possession Laws
Most states, including the District of Columbia, have adverse possession laws. These vary with their time required for continuous possession and the legal documents required to make an adverse possession claim.
In Texas, the statute for adverse possession is: Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 16.021. To claim adverse possession in Texas you need 10 years of continuous possession and a document or deed and paid taxes on the property for at least five years.
Example of Adverse Possession
Last year in Beaumont, Texas a man moved himself and his wife into an unoccupied home. The original owner was deceased and the property had passed on to another individual who was not living in the house and had left it neglected.
According to this news story, the squatter made improvements and did pay a small portion of the owed taxes on the property. He attempted to claim adverse possession, but due to various circumstances, he chose to move himself and wife out of the home. The house ended up at auction.
Ways to Prevent Squatters and Adverse Possession
Property owners can do a few things to help prevent squatters and adverse possession.
- Keep up-to-date with property tax records, paying taxes on time
- If the taxes haven’t been paid, make sure another individual hasn’t paid taxes on the property
- Keep rental agreements and leases up-to-date and signed by all parties
- Provide written permission for anyone using your land, even if it’s just for a shortcut across the property
- If you don’t live on the property, ask trusted neighbors to keep an eye out for trespassers and to notify you if they see any
- Where appropriate, gate entrances and lock to deter trespassers
- Post “no trespassing” signs
If squatting does happen on your property, begin documenting the situation immediately. Call the police and make a statement regarding the trespasser.
Contact an attorney with experience handling adverse possession and squatters rights in that state.
Can Police Remove Squatters?
The police can remove trespassers but not squatters because squatting falls into a civil matter category. It requires legal actions as stated above to remove squatters from a property.
How to Evict Squatters
The eviction process typically starts with the “notice to quit” which is an eviction notice. It’s recommended to work with an attorney who handles evictions and understands the legalities of evicting squatters in your state.
However, via eForms, you can find free eviction notice forms by state.
Take a look at this infographic for a step by step on how to evict a tenant or in this case, a squatter:
As a property owner, squatters are something you may have to deal with at some point. It’s important to educate yourself on the squatters’ rights for the state where your property is located.
Because adverse possession varies by state, be sure to check out the statutes and stay updated on any changes as they happen to avoid losing your property to another individual.