What Are Squatters' Rights and How Do They Apply?

by Team eLocal
Illustration of a person sitting on a house

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

If you own a vacant property, squatters — individuals who unlawfully occupy abandoned property — could become a major hassle for you.

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Understanding squatters' rights and adverse possession is important if you're a property owner. You'll need to know your rights if you find an unauthorized person living in one of your properties.

What Is a Squatter?

Squatters are tenants who aren't legally authorized to live on the property. Squatters don't own the property, don't pay rent to live there and don't have permission to be on the property. Essentially, they're living for free in a home they don't own and have no rights to live in. They also intend to claim ownership of the property to make it their permanent residence, which makes it different than regular trespassing, where the person is just temporarily entering a property without authorization.

Is Squatting Illegal?

No one is legally authorized to live in someone else's home without permission. However, if someone starts squatting, they have some rights. The property owner has to go through legal channels to get rid of them. Squatters' rights can let the unauthorized person eventually gain the title to the property if certain conditions are met.

How Do Squatters' Rights Work?

Squatters' rights provide squatters with some protections. If you have a squatter in a building you own, you have to give them notice to kick them out. Even though there is no rental lease, getting rid of squatters is similar to evicting non-paying tenants. The process varies by state.

Squatters' rights also come into play if the owner doesn't take action to remove the squatter within an established timeframe. They allow the squatter to claim the title to the property after living there for a certain length of time without paying anything to buy the home.

What Is Adverse Possession?

Adverse possession refers to the legal process of the squatter having the title transferred to them. There are several conditions the squatter has to meet to gain the title. Those requirements include:

  • Hostile: In this case, hostile doesn't have to mean aggressive. It simply means the squatter knows they're trespassing and lives there anyway. Also, the owner doesn't agree to the person living there.
  • Actual possession: The squatter has to actively and continuously use the property. In some jurisdictions, this can mean they have to actually live in the home.
  • Exclusive, continuous possession: The possession also has to be continuous for the time period required by the state. The required time period is usually several years or longer. They can't live there, leave for a time and then come back and count all of that time. The timer would essentially restart if the squatter came back at a different time.
  • Open and notorious: Squatters have to make it known that they're in the home. They can't try to hide that they're living there.

How Do Squatters' Rights Vary by State?

All 50 states have squatters' rights, but the regulations often vary slightly by jurisdiction. The biggest difference is the length of time the squatter has to live in the property to adversely possess it. This period can vary from 5 to 30 years, depending on the state. Some states also have other requirements for a squatter to get the title, such as having paid the property taxes while living there. Eviction procedures and criminal laws on trespassing also vary by state.

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What to Do If You Have a Squatter

Monitoring your unoccupied properties, such as empty rental properties or vacation homes, helps you spot a squatter early. This gives you time to evict them before they can live there long enough for an adverse possession. Here are some things you can do if you find a squatter on your property:

  • Review state laws. Find out what the squatters' rights and adverse possession laws are in your state to understand your timeline and what you can do.
  • Evict them. Follow the eviction process for squatters in your state to legally remove them from your building.
  • Contact the police. While the police can't kick the squatter out immediately if you haven't started the eviction process, they can go with you to the home if you decide to talk to the squatter. You can also file a police report, which can show that you made an effort to kick them out.
  • File a lawsuit. You can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit if the squatter doesn't leave when you try to evict them. If you win, the squatters will be forcibly removed by police.

How to Prevent Squatters

If you have unoccupied properties, visit them regularly to inspect them. You can also hire someone else to monitor your property if you don't live near it. Hang “No Trespassing” signs around the property. Installing a security system and cameras can discourage people from squatting, and they can alert you to someone entering your property. Getting to know the neighbors and giving them your contact information can also be useful, so they can contact you if they notice anything unusual.

If you notice a trespasser, you should take action to get them off the property as soon as possible, and contact the police if needed. Trespassers can usually be removed immediately before they've had the chance to become squatters.

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