Squatters: What Are Their Rights?
The term “squatter” connotes preconceived images of homeless people taking shelter in decrepit abandoned buildings; however, the reality is that the face of squatting has changed. When the real estate market collapsed due to the most recent recession, millions of homeowners found themselves being foreclosed upon. Some moved out leaving their empty homes vulnerable for potential squatters, while others became the squatters themselves remaining in their homes for months or even years without paying the mortgage. According to a UMass Law Review report on squatting by Shannon Dunn McCarthy, there are currently more than one billion squatters across the globe, so understanding their legal rights is even more important.
Squatters differ from trespassers, because they’ve actually moved into the property, often changing the locks, setting up bills in their name, and even receiving mail. It would make sense that if you’re not paying for the house that you would be removed from the property, but the process of evicting squatters can be easier said than done. It can fall into a legal gray area pertaining to squatter’s rights where there’s little that law enforcement can do.
Squatting in the United States can be traced all the way back to the Pilgrims who arrived here on the Mayflower. According to a Santa Clara Law report by Kenneth A. Manaster, it has primarily been seen as a rural issue, with the majority of cases involving people claiming land that’s not theirs on the western frontier. Squatters often took possession of land to which they had no title. Through a process of preemption, they were given the opportunity to purchase that land at a low price before it was put up for auction and sold.
Today squatting is seen primarily as a civil issue rather than a criminal one in many countries. In Europe, anyone with unopposed occupation of a piece of land for more than 12 years can gain a title to it. In order to get rid of squatters, owners must take them to court in lengthy and costly legal battles to prove that they are unlawfully occupying their property.
What are squatters rights?
For starters, the term “squatters rights” has no precise or fixed legal meaning, varying contextually speaking based on jurisdiction. In the United States it is most commonly associated with being a specific form of adverse possession, which is an ancient legal doctrine that has been called the “law of the landless.” Adverse possession is defined as:
A method of gaining legal title to real property by the actual, open, hostile, and continuous possession of it to the exclusion of its true owner for the period prescribed by state law. Personal property may also be acquired by adverse possession.
In these cases the disseisor–the party in a case of adverse possession who has taken actual possession of the property, thus dispossessing the true owner–holds no title to any properties adjoining the property under dispute. This is similar to homesteading, where a homesteader can gain a title to a property by using the land and fulfilling other conditions, but unlike adverse possessing the homesteader’s acquisition of the land isn’t hostile. If you’re thinking “Awesome, there’s a way to get free rent,” don’t get too excited. Most would-be squatters in the U.S. don’t meet the legal requirements to claim adverse possession.
Qualifying for Adverse Possession
The concept of squatting has been highly popularized in recent years, which is evident in the form of simplistic how to guides on the subject surfacing on the internet. For those looking to squat for the long run and eventually own the property being seized, understanding how to qualify for adverse possession is essential to any successful land occupation. In order to qualify, the squatters occupation of the land must be:
- Continuous: Must have daily uninterrupted control of the land, usually for a certain number of years.
- Hostile: The trespasser must occupy the land in opposition to the owner’s true rights.
- Open and notorious: Must possess the land openly for all to see.
- Actual: Must actually possess the land.
- Exclusive: Sole physical occupancy.
Most successful squatting hinges on the squatter going unnoticed for a good amount of time by the owners of the property, neighbors, and local law enforcement. Avoiding detection is essential since most loitering and trespassing laws actually make it easy for deed holders to evict trespassers from their property.
For a more lengthy explanation watch the video below.
Types of Squatters
Not all squatting cases are the same. In order to understand the proper actions to take, you must first recognize that there are different types of squatters. Here are a few examples:
- Owner Squatter: has ownership to the physical structure housing the person, but not the land.
- Commercial Squatter: occupying land used for a business without paying rent or taxes for it.
- Squatter Tennant: a squatter paying rent to the original squatter.
- Survival Squatter: someone without housing who resorts to occupying a property as a means of survival.
Squatters are not to be to be confused with holdover tenants, which are tenants who remain in the leased property after the termination of the tenancy.
Legal Gray Area
For homeowners who find themselves with a squatter living in their homes, the whole ordeal can be long and stressful. Squatter’s claims get traction when law enforcement can’t necessarily prove that they do not have a legal right to be on the property. There have been situations where people have presented keys to the property, utility bills with their names on the them, and sometimes even falsified leases or deeds. It then becomes an arduous task for officers to prove that the person living there is doing so illegally. During that time, squatters are permitted to stay at the residence until the matter is solved in court.
The video below provides a perfect example of just how much damage squatters can impose while staying in someone else’s property. In it a man begins squatting at a woman’s vacant residence and then proceeds to list the apartment for rent online. Several people then find themselves roped into his con leaving down payments and signing leases for a property that was never his.
How to Get Rid of a Squatter
Historically speaking, removing squatters by force was the only option for disgruntled owners to get their property back; however, now it is considered illegal in most states. Current eviction procedures vary state to state, but the most common quick and efficient way to get rid of squatters when police are unwilling to remove them is to undergo summary eviction proceedings. The results of these proceedings differ in criminal and civil cases. In a criminal case the judge makes her ruling keeping in mind the vested interest of both the disgruntled party and the occupant. McCarthy explains the process stating:
Summary eviction proceedings combine the dual concerns of property owners and the occupant. Summary proceedings balance homeowner’s temporal concerns with a squatter’s need for habitable housing. Notably, summary eviction proceedings and its requirements are “strictly enforced in favor of squatters” even though this comes with denial of justice to homeowners.
That being said, taking the matter to civil court is usually the best option. In civil court the burden of proof is put on the property owner in order to prove the squatter has no legal right to the property. Even though the process is designed to be quick, it can take weeks and become very costly to the property owner. For squatter victims with foreclosed homes this can become a financial nightmare.
Ultimately the best way to get rid of a squatter is by protecting yourself from them in the first place. Owners should put up clearly visible no trespassing signs on their empty properties, as well make sure the property is properly boarded up and secure. Periodic checks on its condition are also essential, for those owners who live out of town, enlisting the help of neighbors can significantly lessen the likelihood of strangers targeting their residence.
Airbnb Renter From Hell
Think twice before trying to supplement your rent on Airbnb, the popular home rental app. In the case of Cory Tschogl, she rented out her vacation condo using the app and then the tenant stopped paying and refused to leave. What makes matters worse is that since the tenant had been there for over a month he was protected under California tenant law, which requires a landlord to pay a relocation fee to tenants they wish to evict. She then had to go about the process of formally evicting the tenant, which could take anywhere from three to six months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. The squatter eventually left the property after two months, but the whole ordeal had her thinking twice about ever using the app as a host again.
Career Criminals Steal $300,000 House
Some people make a career out of squatting properties. One couple allegedly broke into an abandoned Atlanta home and moved in. After squatting in other properties, the experienced couple used online software to fabricate receipts and a lease, as well as changed the locks on the door. The property was owned by RBC Bank, which refused to press charges on the couple hoping the matter would sort itself out.
Squatters are getting smarter. With the help of books, online “how to’s,” and basic office tools, they’re finding hostile ways to commandeer properties on legal technicalities. The majority of the cases eventually sort themselves out since few squatters actually qualify for an adverse possession, but at a financial and emotional cost to the true owners. In order to not become a victim to squatters and their “rights,”, owners of empty properties must be proactive and vigilant.