As a property owner, you have many responsibilities such as maintaining the property, managing and taking care of your tenants, and resolving any issues the property might have. You might even have to unclog a few toilets or fix a burst pipe here and there. However, many property owners don’t realize that they hold a more daunting responsibility: maintaining ownership and rights to your property from squatters.
What is a Squatter?
By definition, a squatter is a person who settles in or occupies a piece of property with no legal claim to it. This person usually lives in a property to which they have no title, right, or lease. They usually do not have the owner’s permission or even the owner’s knowledge of their presence.
Why Does a Squatter Threaten the Rights to Your Property?
You may be thinking, if a person settles in your property with no legal claim and without the permission of the owner, then it is considered trespassing and easily dealt with, right?
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. In every state, squatters have something called ‘Squatter’s Rights’, formally known as ‘Adverse Possession’. This means that after a certain period of time occupying property, the squatter is rightfully allowed to gain legal ownership of that property. The length of occupation time varies state-by-state, and some states have additional requirements to be considered eligible for adverse possession. This includes paying property taxes for some predetermined period of time, but nonetheless, your rights as the property owner are potentially at stake.
Squatter vs. Trespasser
We talked about how a squatter can gain legal ownership to your property, but what makes squatters no longer considered a trespasser in the eyes of the law?
A trespasser, who knowingly enters into another person’s property, can easily be dealt with by calling the local police and having the squatter removed. However, squatters occupy a property with the intention of staying without the owner’s permission. They can avoid being classified as a trespasser by appearing to be a tenant. In this case, the situation becomes a civil matter rather than a criminal one, in which the police do not have the power to intervene.
How Do Squatters Legitimize Their Stay at Your Property?
For a squatter to be eligible for adverse possession and be granted rights of ownership to your property, they must be able to live in that property for a continuous duration and for some length of time determined by the state without being removed. In the state of California, the requirements of adverse possession are that a person must live on a property for five continuous years, all while paying property taxes for the entire duration. Please check your state’s requirement for adverse possession, as each state differs.
To avoid being legally removed from the property before those five years are up, squatters will attempt to legitimize their stay at your property.
Methods of legitimization include:
Providing fake documents like property claims
Showing some form of payment for rent or property tax
Providing/forging a rental contract with the owner
Proving a continuous, uninterrupted occupation of the property
Beautifying the property (i.e. making efforts to maintain the property): for example, landscaping the property shows effort and constitutes legitimate possession.
In most cases, these are enough for the squatter to avoid prosecution for trespassing, which allows them to stay on the property longer and makes the legal battle for you that much more difficult.
How to Deal with Squatters
There are many ways to deal with squatters. Fortunately, in California, assuming the property wasn’t abandoned or improperly maintained, the state tends to favor the side of the landlord.
The first and easiest step to removing a squatter is paying them to leave. It’s understandable that this isn’t the ideal solution for this problem, but if the squatter agrees to the payment and leaves, it can save you a lot of valuable time, money, and headaches by avoiding lengthy legal battles.
Another way to deal with squatters is to first ‘rent’ the property to them or give them written permission to stay on the property. This might sound counter intuitive but renting the property to them or giving them permission refutes their adverse possession claim. The matter does not adhere to squatters’ rights anymore, rather to landlord-tenant rights. If the squatter doesn’t have a claim to your property under adverse possession, the judge could rule in your favor and removal of the new ‘tenant’ through eviction is now possible.
How to Avoid / Protect Yourself from Squatters
Now that you know about the threat of squatters and adverse possession, here are some tips to prevent this situation from happening to you.
Make sure you are the one paying your property taxes:
Since many adverse possession claims are legitimized through the squatter paying for the property taxes for the duration required, make sure that you are the sole payer of property taxes. If taxes haven’t been paid, make sure no one else has paid it. Be mindful that these records are made public to anyone.
Inspect the property regularly:
Having a well-maintained property can only strengthen your case should a squatter ever try to claim adverse possession. Regularly inspecting the property can also mean checking on door locks, windows, gates, and being made aware of trespassing sooner rather than later.
Provide written permission to anyone entering or using your land:
This helps make clear who is permitted to be on your land and who is not.
Serve written notices and call the sheriff at the earliest sign of a squatter:
The earlier you deal with a squatter, the higher the chance that they are identified as a trespasser, making removal a whole lot simpler.
Keep rental agreements and leases up to date:
This further makes clear who is and isn't allowed to be occupying your property or land.
Begin documentation immediately once you are made aware of the squatting situation:
Again, calling the police or sheriff for assistance provides a police case report that acts as documentation/evidence in your favor.
Before you think that mowing lawn is your biggest concern, remember that someone could take your property away from you, even if they had no right to be there in the first place. With these helpful tips, you can get ahead of this situation and ensure your legal rights as a property owner.