It can be a shock to realize that unauthorized persons are living on your property. However, learning that squatters who take over your property may also have rights can fill you with rage. After all, they’re not paying rent, not looking after the unit, and they live there without any lease or verbal agreement—so why would they have any rights to your property?
Unfortunately, the issue regarding squatters’ rights can be quite complicated—and it became even more so during the pandemic as the issue of squatters’ rights came to the forefront. That’s because the COVID-19 ban on evictions made it impossible to evict a nonpaying tenant—but the eviction moratorium didn’t entirely ban evictions. It was still possible to evict someone for violating local regulations, and in some cases, this included squatting.
So what can you do about “unexpected tenants” taking over your property? Can you turn off utilities and change the locks to get rid of them? Or are there other ways to effectively get rid of squatters from your property that won’t violate state laws? If you’re interested in answers to these questions, read on to find out what you can do about squatters taking over your property.
What is a squatter?
A squatter is someone who has entered a property that they have no legal right to—but have taken up residence at the property anyway. By definition, a squatter doesn’t pay rent to the owner of the property and lives there without the property owner’s permission. In these cases, the squatter generally gains unlawful access to the property and sets up a home there.
That isn’t always the case, though. In some cases, a squatter could mistakenly believe they have a right to live there because of a fraudulent lease agreement. This happens from time to time when savvy criminals lease out your empty property without permission to someone else and then steal the rental deposit and rent payments. It’s a common scam—especially in areas with high rental demands or limited rental properties—and in these cases, the squatter isn’t purposefully acting in a criminal manner.
What are squatters rights?
There is a set of laws dating back to the late 1800s that protects squatters’ rights. The rights were originally created to protect the pioneers who moved into vacant land, built a homestead, and started working the land. At the time, the protection provided by these rights was intended to allow pioneers to expand land owned by the government.
Fast-forward about 160 years and these laws mean that squatters still have rights under the same legislation in the Homestead Act of 1862. So what does this mean for landlords? In legal terms, there is protection for squatters—called “adverse possession”—and it means that if a squatter has been living on the property for a specific length of time and you haven’t tried to evict them, they may have legal claim to the property.
Squatter vs. trespasser: What’s the difference?
If you are a landlord, it is extremely important to realize the difference between trespassing and squatting. A trespasser is someone who breaks into a property that they have no right to. For example, a trespasser may gain entrance by breaking a window or smashing a lock to gain access. Trespassing is a criminal offense and you can call the police over the issue.
On the other hand, a squatter can “legally” gain access if they can enter the property without committing a criminal act. For example, they could “legally” get in by entering through a broken window that they didn’t break, by sliding open a window, or by walking through an open door. In many circumstances, a squatter could simply be a tenant who stops paying rent at the end of the lease but refuses to leave a rental property.
Which states have squatters rights?
All states recognize the rights of squatters in some form or fashion. However, the adverse possession laws differ from state to state.
For example, according to squatters’ rights in Pennsylvania, a person must live on the property for at least 20 years to have any legal claim to the property. However, that requirement is a minimum of just seven years in states like Florida and Arkansas. And, in California, squatters may have legal rights after just five years.
Squatter rights: How landlords can remove squatters legally
Given that squatters may have a legal claim to your property after a certain amount of years, the burning question for landlords is how to remove a squatter legally.
It is essential that you keep yourself on the right side of the law when removing a squatter, even though they are living on your property without permission. Here are some steps you can take to do that:
1. Start by preventing squatters
As the adage goes: prevention is better than the cure. As such, preventing squatters from entering your property is the first step.
There are a few simple ways you can do this. For example, it’s a good idea to secure the property by ensuring all doors and windows are locked and can’t be opened without your authorization. You could also install alarms and motion detectors that send notifications to your mobile phone.
You should also visit your property regularly to check for broken windows and ensure no one is living there. If you visit your property regularly, you will ensure that a squatter never gets to spend enough time on your property to claim any legal right to it.
2. Call the police
If you discover squatters living on your property, you should immediately call the police. Squatting is a civil matter, but the police can determine if the people on your property are trespassers or squatters. The police report will also help with the next step: starting the eviction process.
Remember, though, that if the unlawful tenants refuse to leave, you can’t take matters into your own hands. Although it may seem reasonable to forcibly remove them, the truth is that they have rights. As such, you need to follow the same eviction procedures that you would follow when removing a tenant for nonpayment of rent.
3. Serve an eviction notice
The next step is to serve a formal eviction notice. Depending on your state, you must usually give the squatters three to five days to vacate the property. After that, you can file an Unlawful Detainer action. To do this, you will need to prove the following:
- The tenant is living there without permission.
- The squatter doesn’t pay rent.
- You have given the required notice.
- The squatter is still living in the property after the notice period has expired.
But what happens if the squatter refuses to leave despite the court order? In that case, you need to proceed to the next step.
4. File a civil lawsuit to get rid of the squatter
If the squatter refuses to leave the property, you may need to file a lawsuit to remove them from the premises. The judge will typically rule in favor of the landlord if all of the proper procedures have been followed—which is why you need to follow the letter of the law completely.
Once the judge has ruled in your favor, you can present the ruling to the local police, who will remove the squatters.
5. Get rid of a squatter’s possessions
Unfortunately, your issue with the squatter doesn’t always end there. If they have left any of their possessions behind on your property, you can’t always just discard them.
In many cases, you may need to give them time to collect their possessions from your property before you get rid of them. However, it’s important to note that the laws differ from state to state, so be sure to get solid legal advice before making any decisions about their items or trashing their stuff.
Final thoughts on squatters rights and landlords
Finding squatters living on your property is frustrating. However, you must remember to act in line with the law. After all, squatters have rights in a lot of cases, and you don’t want to violate the law.
And, while you may want the squatters off your property, it’s important to understand that you can not threaten them or carry out a self-help or illegal eviction. If you follow the required steps for this type of eviction, however, you can get your property back in a timely manner in most cases.