our Updated October 7, 2021
If you’ve ever hosted a social gathering, you might be familiar with the phenomena of the guest who wouldn’t leave. Such a guest overstays their welcome and becomes a great source of annoyance.
Now imagine how frustrating it would be to have someone come onto your property uninvited, and then they decide to live there. Unfortunately, it’s something that happens from time to time. It’s called “squatting.”
Which States Have Squatters’ Rights?
Most states have laws regarding squatters’ rights. It just depends on how long the squatter has been occupying the property. Here is a table showing how long it takes for squatters’ rights to be established in each state:
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
7 Years or Less
History of Squatting
In the days of the Wild West, ranch owners could deal with errant squatters by riding out in a posse and chasing the squatters off their land. Obviously, a lot has changed since the days of stage coaches and gold rushes, because nearly every state has laws stating a landlord cannot use force or the threat of force to disburse squatters from their property. Instead, they must file the proper paperwork and work through legal channels.
The idea of squatting goes back to medieval England and its common law. The king’s courts would routinely rule in favor of individuals who occupied a property without permission, providing the owner did not take action against them within a certain statute of limitations.
Back in those days, squatter conflict routinely come into play when peasants seeking escape from the tax burden of their current location would move into the country and build a house on the land, acquiring the property by assumption (a common practice at the time).
Ancient Welsh folk tradition states that if a person can build a home on common land in one night, it would belong to them free and clear. This is known as a “the one-night house.” Other variants of the belief specify that a squatter would need to have a fire burning in the hearth by morning, whereupon they could extend the boundaries of their newly acquired property by throwing an axe as far as possible from all four corners of the home.
Thankfully in the United States, such practices are no longer applicable. State legislatures have created a more concrete set of rules regarding squatting.
However, if an individual unlawfully takes possession of a property and occupies it consistently for a certain period of time, they may actually establish a stronger claim to the property than the actual owner. Though it sounds bizarre, squatting is quite common, and a popular tool used by ill-intentioned individuals to take possession of abandoned properties.
What is a Squatter?
A squatter is anyone who begins to inhabit a piece of property or land without the legal right to do so. In other words, they are not renting the property from the owner (where landlord-tenant law comes into play) and they do not have permission to use it.
You might think an unauthorized occupant would be easy to eject from a residential property or vacant retail property (especially when there is no lease agreement to content with), but an unauthorized tenant (or adverse possessor, as they are called in the legal world) has the right to go through an eviction process. The rightful owner of the property must act within a certain statutory period (outlined above state by state) before the adverse possession law in their state gives legal title to the squatter who has taken possession of the real property.
It seems like a nightmare come true, but it’s a perfect example of why real estate should never be considered a completely passive income. It’s important to check up on real property, especially vacant property, and make sure that nothing will impede on your valid and legal claims to it.
What Are Squatters’ Rights?
Squatter’s rights (also known as adverse possession) allow a squatter to continue their use/occupation of a property in the event that the true owner or landlord does not take action within a certain time frame.
Why Do Squatters Have Rights?
The main goal of squatters’ rights is to discourage the use of vigilante justice. If landowners were allowed to use violence or the threat of violence to evict a squatter, the situation could quickly escalate and become dangerous. Moreover, it would create a climate of vigilante justice that could spill into other areas of life, reducing the safety of society that people have generally come to expect from the places they live.
Squatters have rights so that, in the bigger picture, justice can be facilitated. It’s very similar to tenants’ rights that protect a renter from an unscrupulous landlord. The laws spell out the rights of each party involved to keep the real estate markets stable and negotiations (mostly) peaceful.
What’s the Difference Between Squatting and Trespassing?
Trespassing involves entering a property unlawfully, either for a moment or with the intention of lingering.
Squatting is technically a type of trespassing, but squatters take it one step further: they have the intention of taking an ownership claim and/or making the property their permanent residence.
Oftentimes squatters will take possession of unattended real estate, such as a vacant building. Not only are these buildings more loosely monitored, but they are also easier to take legal possession of by squatting.
In most cases, a property occupied by the owner does not fall into squatter’s rights law because the owner does not need to go through eviction motions to remove a trespasser. In some states, the use of force to remove trespassers from an owner-occupied property is a protected right—though, if possible, it’s best to call the police and allow them to use that force, if necessary.
How Do You Get a Squatter Out?
Peacefully and legally—not with violence or the threat of violence.
Your best bet is to call local law enforcement first. Keep in mind they will not be able to evict the squatter right away, but they will be able to accompany you to the property to ask the squatter to leave and file a police report that can later be used in court to demonstrate that you took action against the squatter.
Your next step is to file an Unlawful Detainer Action. The process varies from state to state, so it’s best to solicit the services of an attorney. This action will trigger the process of serving the squatter with a formal eviction notice, which is most often furnished by a local sheriff.
If the squatter does not follow the eviction notice by the date they are ordered to vacate the premises, you can file a suit in court. In most states, this is referred to an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Both parties are required to attend the unlawful detainer lawsuit, but if the squatter does not show, the judge will most likely rule in your favor. If that happens, the police will be ordered to forcibly evict the squatter from the premises.
Once the squatter is removed, you may think that you can go in and remove any belongings they left behind, but you’d be surprised to learn that may not be legal in your state.
Bring written notice of what you intend to do with any property left behind to the court hearing. Speak with your lawyer to make sure you are following the requisite procedures. In some states, you are not allowed to handle the squatter’s property for a certain period of time. If this is the case, be careful to avoid moving anything (even if it seems like trash) unless you consult with your lawyer first. You never know—the squatter could claim you removed a valued possession, which could bring further legal complications.
Do Squatters Pay Property Taxes?
In some instances, they very well may pay property taxes in an attempt to solidify their adverse possession claim against the property. However, in some states, they are not required to pay property taxes as part of their claim to the property.
If a squatter is occupying your property and paying taxes, do not assume that you can skip out on paying yours. You don’t want to give their claim validity in any way.
A Property Owner Needs to Be Familiar with Squatters’ Rights
The idea of someone unlawfully entering your property and taking possession of it may seem impossible, but property owners beware: it can happen.
While you might think of a squatter as a homeless individual with limited legal resources, don’t make any assumptions. There are many reasons squatters rights can come into play—estate disputes and a holdover tenant from previous rental property agreements are both prime examples.
This is why anyone learning how to become a landlord must familiarize themselves with the legal rights and processes associated with tenants, squatters, and trespassers. It’s also a good idea to consult with an attorney should any questions regarding these laws arise. You hope that you never have to deal with a squatter, but should you need to, you’ll be glad to have an expert in your corner.
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