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Property investors must understand Squatter's Rights. All 50 states have laws that give squatters rights. It is illegal to force a squatter out without taking the appropriate legal steps and evicting them. So, owners need to be aware of the laws in their investment areas. 

This guide provides valuable information for handling these challenging situations and how to evict a squatter if necessary legally. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know to protect your rental property investment portfolio.

What Is a Squatter?

A squatter is someone who is occupying a property they do not legally own or have permission to inhabit or use. Each state has different laws governing how property owners handle squatters. 

In most states, tenants with an expired lease are not considered squatters. A tenant with an expired lease is a 'tenant at will,' meaning they are at the landlord's will. 

If the landlord chooses, they may tell the tenant to leave at any time by following the legal guidelines in the state where the property lies. Squatters, on the other hand, can be much harder to evict. 

You must take additional steps to remove unauthorized occupants because you do not know their names or have a legally binding agreement with them.

Why Are There Squatter's Rights?

Most squatter's rights date back to settlement when the government held land no one had claimed. During the 1860s in the United States, the government offered land stakes for 160-acre homesteads that settlers could claim. These archaic laws follow the principle that it is better for someone, even if not the lawful owner, to occupy, care for, and pay taxes to the government on property. 

In some places, squatter's laws also help to protect people from homelessness. If a person has no other place to go and they have been occupying your property, you at least have to give them time to find other housing arrangements. You can't just throw them out on the street. 

Not all illegal occupants know they are committing an unlawful act. For example, if someone represents that they are the property owner, they may lease a property that they know is vacant to an unknowing individual.

So, while that person is not living in the home legally, they are under the impression that the owner is the one who permitted them to occupy the property. In those cases, it is not fair for the individual to seek other housing arrangements without any legal process.

What Is the Difference Between Trespassing and Squatting?

If someone is visibly living in a property, the utilities are on, and they have furniture or belongings, they are a squatter.

What Are Legal Squatter's Rights?

Squatter rights vary between states, but all 50 states have adverse possession laws, meaning a long-term squatter can take possession of the property. In all states, you must follow local landlord-tenant laws to remove the individual. 

That means you must follow the local guidelines for evicting the squatter before a court representative can remove them from the property. Essentially, they are afforded the same rights as a lawful tenant regarding eviction.

What Are Adverse Possession Squatter's Rights?

Adverse possession is a legal process by which a squatter can gain legal ownership over a property. The claimant must meet specific criteria for adverse possession laws to take effect. 

It is a lawful way for someone to acquire ownership of a property that the owner does not use or maintain for an extended period. It is different from stealing a title through identity theft or filing a fraudulent deed.

However, a fraudulent Quitclaim Deed, Special Warranty Deed, or General Warranty Deed may help someone filing a suit under adverse possession lawfully gain ownership of your property after a shorter time.

What Are the Requirements to Prove Squatter's Rights?

In most states, the requirements for proving adverse possession are the same. Only the timeframe for which the person is occupying the property changes. 

However, depending on what documentation the court has to review, the judge may grant rights to a squatter under shorter timeframes.

Visible Possession of the Property

The settler must openly and visibly use and reside on the property. That means they have to come and go during the day, park their cars there, and the utilities are turned on. 

Color of Title 

The term 'color of title' refers to documentation that conveys interest in the property to an individual. However, the documentation does not have to be lawful for adverse possession laws to apply. 

So, if someone other than the owner sells the property to another party and provides the occupant a deed in closing, the person living in the home would have color of title. It is not uncommon for identity thieves to steal home titles. So, it is not impossible for a squatter to obtain this documentation unknowingly.

On the other hand, suppose the squatter knows about squatter laws and moves into the property intending to gain ownership. In that case, they may create the necessary fake documentation and file it upon moving into your property. 

In a state with shortened adverse possession statute of limitations, a squatter could gain ownership after as little as three years with color of title, especially if they have been paying the taxes, and maintaining the property.

Payment of Taxes 

The possessor must pay all taxes levied against the property. Paying taxes and other levied assessments may give the squatter a better chance to win the property in an adverse possession case. 

In some states, a deed, legal or not, and paying taxes may shorten the time an occupant may need to take away your property rights. In Arizona and Texas, someone with 'color of title' which meets the other adverse possession requirements may take ownership in as little as three years. So, the owner has less than three years to file an eviction suit to protect their property rights.

Hostile and Exclusive Possession

Hostile in reference to adverse possession does not mean violent or even that the squatter is confrontational. It simply means they occupy the property openly and do not recognize the true title owner's rights. 

For example, the settler may not:

  • Call or rely on the owner for repairs.
  • Acknowledge the owner as the genuine title holder.
  • Lease the property to another individual.
  • Pay a deposit or rental payments to the valid legal owner.

Continuous Use

The squatter must use the property continuously for the time required by the state. If the squatter vacates the property at any time during the statute period or allows another person to take over the property while they are away, their use is not continuous.

So, the time necessary to successfully claim and allows someone else to move into the property starts over, and their use is not continuous. However, if the time they occupy the property after moving back in meets the legal requirements, the court may grant them property rights. 

What Are the Timeframes for Squatter's Rights? 

Adverse possession statute of limitations varies depending on the state. Some states have several statutes with differing timeframes that apply depending on what documentation the claimant presents.

The nap below shows the number of years each state requires for someone to pursue an adverse possession claim.

Adverse Possession Timelines

Each state has different laws that govern adverse possession or squatter's rights. So, you must understand the rules in your area. With the correct documentation, landlords have as little as three years to evict a squatter before the occupant can claim adverse possession in a few states. 

How Do You Protect Your Property from Squatter's Rights?

Unfortunately, it may be challenging to keep squatters out if you have a vacant property. You can protect yourself by removing squatters legally as soon as you know that they are on your property. 

You should also make sure that you screen tenants and have all lease agreements in writing. Most states do not consider a former tenant with an expired lease or verbal lease agreement a squatter. Nevertheless, it is your word against theirs without legal proof.

Furthermore, if a tenant allows a non-leaseholder to move in after their lease expires, you will have to evict them legally. You can not intimidate, threaten, or forcibly remove squatters. 

It is also illegal to lock squatters out, disconnect utilities, or remove their belongings without a court order. So, the best protection from squatters is to prevent them in the first place. 

Check Properties Routinely

As a rental property owner, you must regularly check on each property. You should consider hiring a property management company if you cannot do that. 

Having a property manager is vital if your properties are in another state that you do not frequently visit. It is worth the cost to pay for this critical service in areas you cannot manage yourself.

Having to evict squatters is terrible enough, but when you do not act quickly, it can cost you thousands more. 

Keep the Utilities Turned On

Keeping the utilities on will prevent anyone from turning them on in their name. It will also make people think there is someone there or visiting regularly. 

Squatters usually look for properties that are empty and dark. They do not want to get caught climbing in a window or breaking a door to get inside. So, keeping your property well-lit can help to deter intruders.

Maintain the Property

Keeping the lawn mowed and the property maintained lets people know someone is routinely checking on the property. People are less likely to move into a home if they think they might be caught. When the house is in disrepair or the locks or doors are not secure, it is only a matter of time before people make themselves at home. 

Pay Property Taxes On-Time

One of the requirements for proving adverse possession is to pay all outstanding taxes on the property. On-time payments of taxes and HOA fees will prevent anyone else from paying them on your behalf.

Evict Squatters as Soon as Possible

When you notice squatters in your house, you must evict them quickly. The longer they are there, the more legal ground they have to stand on if they ever try to claim adverse possession of your property. 

Furthermore, squatters are often people who can't legally obtain housing or afford it. They are not paying rent and communicating with the owner, so they rarely keep up with necessary routine repairs and maintenance like pest control, leak repairs, safety upgrades, etc.

Not to mention, they may cause significant damage by breaking doors and windows to gain access, starting fires during the winter to stay warm, smoking indoors, or just living in filth because the property is not theirs. The longer the squatter occupies the property, the more damage they are likely to do.

Invest In a Title Monitoring Service

Title monitoring services through a reputable company can be a great tool for protecting yourself from real estate con-artists. These services notify you if someone files a deed changing status as the legal title holder.

You can also check property records yourself if your property is in a county with online real estate property records. Most counties in major cities have online records that are easy to search.

However, it can be challenging to remember all of the properties you own and to actually look this information up on a regular basis, so a title monitoring service helps you manage this task.

Get a Property Survey When You Purchase

Squatter's rights may also apply to a piece of land that a neighbor illegally occupies. The longer the person uses your land as their own, the harder it is to protect yourself in court.

Evicting a squatter from a piece of land will require a survey, and you will not know if someone is illegally using part of your property without one. Major survey disputes are more common on more extensive tracts of land and commercial properties. 

However, these disputes are important to mention. They can be very costly. A few examples of squatter issues a survey may offer protection from include:

  • A farmer allows a neighbor to use a section of his land. The neighboring farmer raises a fence along the property line. Years later, the farmer sells the land. The new owner forgoes a survey. Later, upon realizing an oil company is interested in drilling there, the neighbor files for adverse possession of the acreage they have been occupying and collects the royalty payments for that section of land.
  • A commercial development deal depends on the ability of a property to accommodate a specific building design. The developer purchases the land but does not obtain a new survey and later realizes a neighboring owner is occupying a section of their property.

Change the Locks

It would be best if you changed the locks when you purchase a new property or a tenant moves out. People often make multiple copies of their house keys even if you tell them they are not allowed.

They may also change the locks before moving out, even if the lease forbids it. So, changing the locks after each tenant leaves is vital, especially if you had to evict them or they left under undesirable circumstances.

What Are the Legal Steps for Evicting Squatters? 

Evicting a squatter is different from evicting a tenant. Each state has laws and steps you need to follow to remove a squatter. So, having a reputable lawyer represent you is a good idea.

eviction lawsuit
If you choose to handle the issue independently, you must be very cautious and follow the eviction process in your jurisdiction meticulously.

File a Police Report

Filing a police report is the first thing you need to do to evict without a lease. They could be a criminal or someone who is unable to lawfully lease an apartment due to being convicted of a crime. 

The police will be able to knock on the door and find out who the person is and why they are there. They can ask the individual for identifying information that you will need to include in your lawsuit.

Furthermore, bringing a police officer to serve the notice to vacate may scare the squatters. So, they are more likely to leave without you following through with the complete legal process.

Send or Post a Notice to Vacate

When you file the police report, ask for an officer to escort you to the property so you can post a notice to vacate. Most states require a three-day notice, but there are a few that give the occupant seven days or more. 

Knowing how long the person has to vacate is essential. If you post a three-day notice and the state laws require seven days, a judge will make you repost the notice before you can file the eviction lawsuit.

File the Correct Eviction Documents

You will need to file an eviction lawsuit in civil court. It is vital that you follow the legal eviction process in the jurisdiction in which the property is located. Each jurisdiction has a different process and documents that are necessary to start the eviction process. 

It may be a good idea to hire an attorney at this point. Oftentimes, it is more costly and time-consuming to represent yourself in court. 

Having an expert handle the entire legal process for you if you are a novice investor is almost always encouraged. Making an error could be costly. If you do not file the eviction documents correctly, the squatter can file a counter-suit against you. 

When it comes to cases involving property ownership, the court often sides with the occupant. So, it is wise to follow each step carefully and keep meticulous records of everything you do.

If you are a more experienced investor who has experienced the eviction process in a local court, you may be more equipped to take the case on yourself.

Have a Process Server or Police Officer Serve the Eviction Notice

All court notices need to be served by an official process server or police officer. When dealing with squatters, it is a good idea to use a police officer as people facing eviction can become desperate or violent. 

Furthermore, you will need to be able to prove to the court that you served the appropriate notices in order to win your lawsuit in eviction court.

Represent Yourself in Court

If you are representing yourself in court, you need to prepare. Bring all documentation, notices, and proof of service. You should also bring detailed notes as to each time you spoke with the squatter if you have any and any individuals who witnessed the communication in person. 

Hearsay is inadmissible in court. So, having a neighbor that spoke to the squatter testify or anyone who is not a first-hand witness will not work.

The best course of action is to have a police officer accompany you and file a report each time you visit the property while you are dealing with the squatter. It is important to remember that you will not be able to have a squatter removed unless the court grants the eviction. If you do not have documentation to support your case, you may have to refile. 

Petition the Court for a Writ of Removal 

After you win your eviction case, you need to file a petition for a Writ of Removal. Without the writ, you will not be able to have a police officer remove the squatter.

Serve the Squatter with the Writ of Removal 

If the court grants your petition for a Writ of Removal, you must have a police officer serve it. The writ typically gives the person 24 hours to vacate the property before being removed by force.

Follow Squatter's Rights Laws for Personal Property

Even after you legally evict a squatter, you have to follow state eviction laws for dealing with personal property.

Squatter's belongings
It is a good idea to send a certified letter telling them where their belongings are being stored. The letter should also include details about how they can access their belongings, how long they are going to be stored, and what you intend to do with them after that period expires.

You need to check with the laws in the property state to determine the length of time you legally have to keep the possessions before disposing or donating them.

Why Do You Need to Protect Yourself from Squatter's Rights?

You may not think that it is important to protect vacant property from squatters. If you are not collecting rent on a unit or are unable to make necessary repairs right away to make a unit rentable, it may seem better to allow squatters to remain until you can maintain the property.

However, squatters often leave a home in disrepair. Complexes with numerous units occupied by squatters are unsafe. Predators, thieves, and criminals may squat because they cannot find housing due to laws preventing felons from owning or renting in some communities.

You would not want a squatter occupying your property to commit a criminal act there. In some states, the property owner can be held criminally or civilly responsible for crimes committed in their home. Government agencies like the DEA and Homeland Security can seize property used in a crime.

Are You Ready to Evict Squatters? 

Dealing with squatters can be challenging. Knowing the process for legally evicting people who are occupying your property illegally really helps. However, it is just as important to take measures to protect your property before squatters ever move in. 

If you do not feel ready to handle these tough aspects of managing your properties yourself or you own properties in different cities or states, it is a good idea to hire a management company.

Many investors with large rental property portfolios work with a property manager because they help to prevent squatters and deal with evicting squatters when necessary.

However, if you are diligent, following this guide should help you keep unwelcome quests out and navigate the legal eviction process when squatter's rights are a factor.

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Written By:
Amy Gilmore
Amy has over ten years of experience as a title company branch manager and closing trainer. Her escrow book of business includes national lenders, real estate wholesalers, investors, property developers, and top-selling realtors. Amy is passionate about teaching the benefits of investing in property and mentoring others in the real estate industry.
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