No landowner likes to hold vacant property, but there are times when units will go unrented, putting the landowner at risk for squatters. Many states have squatter's rights that provide certain protections to trespassers, which can put the landlord or property owner in a challenging situation.
Learn what squatter's rights are, when they apply, where squatter's rights are enforced, and what the legal owner of the real estate can do about it.
The definition of squatter's rights
Squatter’s rights, professionally known as adverse possession laws, occur when someone occupies a property for an extended length of time without the property owner attempting eviction or otherwise interrupting access to the property. By remaining in constant possession of the abandoned property, the squatter then has a right to claim legal title to the land from the original owner.
This law does not apply to a rental property where a tenant refuses to pay the landlord the agreed-upon rent. That situation is known as an unlawful detainer; the owner had given permission to the tenant to occupy the property and therefore the tenant has no legal right to take possession of the land. In this case, the owner of the land would consult an attorney and follow the appropriate legal eviction process for their municipality.
When and where do squatter’s rights apply?
For a legitimate adverse possession claim, the trespasser must physically be in possession of the property without the owner's permission, openly, for a continuous length of time. The length of time required to be in possession of the property ranges from five to 30 years and, depending on the law, may require the trespasser to pay property taxes on the land during that time.
As an example, let's say a California homeowner passed away. While the home goes through probate, a trespasser moves in and starts living there full time. During the three years it takes to complete probate, the trespasser improves the home, makes friends with the neighbors, and even uses the home as their mailing address. Out-of-state heirs inherit the home, but don’t list the home right away because they're too busy. After two years, the heirs finally fly to California to meet a realtor, only to discover someone has been living in the home for over five years and now has legal right to claim the land as his own.
All 50 states have squatting laws, but the specific law can vary greatly by state, city, and municipality. Consult an experienced attorney to find out exactly what squatter’s rights are applicable to your land.
What to do if you're experiencing a squatter
Squatters don’t have to take claim to the entire property to have certain legal rights; prescriptive easement can also occur. This is when someone uses part of the land and gains the right to that land over time but isn't trying to live in the house or take over the whole parcel. But prescriptive easement is more common on large pieces of real estate where the landowner is physically occupying the property but does not realize a neighbor has taken partial possession of their land. Squatters are most commonly seen with abandoned property.
If you're the owner of the vacant property, the easiest way to avoid squatter’s rights is to regularly check on the real estate or have a professional agency in the area check on it for you. If a trespasser is discovered, the owner can simply call the police to have them physically removed from the property.
If you find that it's a recurring problem, you can follow the legal eviction process for the area your property is in, which may include posting an eviction notice or potentially taking the trespasser to court. Most states require constant possession of the land, which means even a temporary disruption in occupancy will restart the time frame for the trespasser to establish squatter’s rights.
As the owner of a property that's vulnerable to squatter’s rights, it's your responsibility to check on the land so that you can promptly evict trespassers. It's important to consult with an attorney who is familiar with the legal proceedings where your land is located so that you have a clear understanding of the law and how to legally regain possession of your property should squatter’s rights ever be in question.