January 6, 2020

Owning a rental property can be a rewarding experience but it also has its pitfalls. One of the worst things that property owners have to deal with is squatters.

A squatter is someone who takes possession of a property without renting or owning it. Examples of squatters include:

  • A person who breaks into a property he or she does not own and starts living there.
  • A tenant who fails to pay rent or has an expired lease but continues living on the property. This is legally not defined as squatting but it’s essentially the same thing.
  • A roommate or someone who sub-let a property who doesn’t leave once his or her lease ends.
  • A person who responded to a fake ad and signed a lease thinking a scammer was the landlord. This can be a very difficult situation because the squatter was taken advantage of and began squatting unknowingly.

Often, squatters move into abandoned buildings. This may not be a big deal until someone buys the building and needs to remove the squatter. Unfortunately, there’s such a thing as “squatters’ rights” which vary from state to state. Some states give squatters very few rights but others treat them as if they’ve made a financial investment in a property even though they have not.

What Are Squatter’s Rights?

Squatters are given rights to property they do not own and those rights are protected by law. As long as a squatter is not served an eviction notice, they are legally permitted to live on the property and over time could even become the legal owner of that property.

This comes as a surprise to many property owners and law-abiding citizens in general but, in many states, it’s surprisingly easy to gain control of property just by squatting.

Squatters might only need to live in a location for as little as six weeks or have utilities turned on at the location in their name to claim residency of a property they do not own or pay rent for. They might be stealing your property but it’s not considered a crime. It is considered a civil matter and law enforcement likely won’t get involved.

It could take months or years to finally remove squatters from your property – an endeavor most property owners aren’t interested in dealing with.

Adverse Possession

One of the most frustrating problems property owners face is dealing with adverse possession. This is when someone who did not buy the property gains ownership by proving they’ve occupied it for a specific period of time, even if this was done without permission from the owner.

Simply living there could grant them ownership rights. In some cases, squatters can have the deed transferred to them without paying a dime.

For a squatter to claim adverse possession, he or she must demonstrate the following:

  • That they had exclusive possession of the property for a specific period of time (varies from state to state)
  • That they are openly and obviously using the property and making no attempt to sneak into or hide that they are occupying it
  • That they are occupying the property without permission

In most cases, as a property owner, you have some power over squatters as long as they haven’t lived in a location for many years and haven’t paid property taxes.

If you’re concerned about squatters or you’re dealing with squatters and you aren’t sure what to do, this information can help.

Preventing Squatting

The best way to get rid of squatters is to prevent them from entering the property in the first place.

Of course, this isn’t always an option.

If you haven’t had ownership of the property all along or squatters were originally paying rent, there isn’t much you can do to prevent squatting.

If you do own a property and you have not yet moved in or rented out every unit, make sure the property is sufficiently secured. Squatters are notorious for moving into a property before the completion of conveyance so anything you can do to lock down the property will help.

Make sure all doors and windows are closed and locked at all times so if anyone enters the property, they are treated as criminals for breaking and entering. If a property doesn’t have door or window locks, make sure you add them or ask the existing owner to do so. Also, post “no trespassing” signs on the property to let people know that they are not allowed on the property without permission.

If You Currently Own Rental Property

If you currently own a rental property, make sure the renters don’t abandon it and let squatters in. Vet all tenants carefully and if you suspect a tenant might flee without notice, check on the property or hire someone to do so regularly.

You also need to prevent non-paying tenants from becoming holdovers. Some people stop paying but continue living in the property so if you have a tenant who isn’t paying rent, take the necessary steps for a legal eviction. You don’t have the authority to remove people with force but you will have the power of law enforcement behind you if you get the court involved in the eviction process.

Finally, if you are renting your property short-term, such as an Airbnb, make sure you know the laws in your state and take precautions to avoid squatting. There have been cases of people moving into a rental for an extended stay – six weeks at an Airbnb might be enough in some states – and then refusing to leave. You might be able to get them out eventually but you need to hire a lawyer to do so which is going to be a costly and frustrating endeavor.

What You Cannot Do to Evict a Squatter

You can take extreme measures to protect your property and prevent squatters from moving in but your power is far more limited once squatters are there. Having squatters is not only an inconvenience but you also lose control of your property.

Laws vary from state to state. In some places, if squatters have settled into your property, you are not permitted to put padlocks on the doors to keep them out. Other areas prevent you from shutting off the operating utilities to drive them away.

This means freezing them out won’t do the trick and it’s a plan that could backfire – you’ll have a bigger problem on your hands if the squatter decides to improvise and use candles or a space heater for comfort.

You also are not permitted to intimidate them in any way. You might be the property owner but once squatters have arrived, you have no authority to force them from the property. Verbally or physically intimidating squatters, including picking up or moving their belongings, can cross a legal line. By taking aggressive action you leave yourself open to legal action and can end up being fined.

Courts don’t want property owners taking matters into their own hands. They want you to follow the legal process and find you if you do not. They can also make it even more difficult to remove the squatter. The last thing you need is the justice system on the side of the squatter. You’re better off following procedure no matter how unfair or unjust it seems.

What Can You Do If You Discover Squatters?

It might seem as if you have no power when it comes to squatters but that’s not true. The situation isn’t a good one but you do still have some control.

The first thing you should do is contact the police. Do this the moment you discover there is a squatter living at your property. Serve an eviction notice immediately. The longer you wait, the more power the squatter gets. If the court discovers that you ignored the problem, they are more likely to rule in the squatters’ favor.

Next, give notice and file an Unlawful Detainer. This gives the court notice that you want to remove the person from your property. In some cases, squatters leave when the eviction notice is served but if this isn’t the case, you have to go a step further and take formal measures to evict. Every state is different so make sure you understand the process in your state.

If you win your lawsuit against the squatter but the person still refuses to leave, you can hire the sheriff to force the person out. This is the last step and law enforcement will physically remove the person from the property as long as the court has ruled in your favor.

You might be help responsible for belongings that are left behind and chances are you can’t just get rid of them. There are also local laws for removing squatter belongings.

Aside from enacting prevention measures, the most important thing you can do when dealing with squatters is to deal with the situation legally.

Contact the police, serve an eviction notice, file a civil lawsuit if the eviction notice wasn’t enough, and have the squatters removed by law enforcement or authorities. If you need help with this process, the best thing you can do is consult an attorney who has dealt with removing squatters and can help you manage the process legally and as efficiently as possible.

How Long Will It Take to Remove Squatters?

The short answer? It’s probably not going to be quick and easy.

Sometimes it is. Sometimes a person moved into a property simply because the opportunity arose and they have no intention of doing anything that seems untoward. A door was open, the person needed a place to sleep or get warm, and now that you’ve asked that person, they will.

In many cases, it’s not this easy. People claiming squatter’s rights tend to understand the law and know what they can get away with. They intentionally targeted your property because they knew it would be possible to use squatter laws in their favor.

It can take days to months to remove squatters. In rare, difficult cases where the court system is particularly slow, it can take years. On average, it takes a little over a month to a month and a half to deal with the problem.

The faster you act, the more difficult it is for the squatter to claim ownership of the property. Squatter’s rights only increase over time. Eviction, even under the best of circumstances, can take a lot of time and money but the sooner you act, the fewer problems you’ll have.

Waiting to act also restricts your ability to rent your property. You cannot rent until the squatter is gone and cleanup is complete. Even if you’re able to remove a squatter in a few weeks, you’re still probably looking at a couple of months before you’ll get your property ready for new tenants.

Squatters are also notorious for damaging property, including causing structural and exterior damage. This is especially true if you get into an eviction battle with them.

If you’d like more information on squatters and how to deal with them, sign up for our newsletter.

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