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Squatter’s Rights: Who Are They & Why Do They Squat?

10 August, 2021

Squatter’s rights guide: squatting law

There are times when unwanted guests who stay longer than they should become annoying. When you apply the situation to real estate, the scenario becomes complicated on a different level. People who do not own a particular property may occupy and start living if they find it unoccupied. This is something that happens often, and the eviction process is not as easy as it may seem for property owners. These people, known as ‘squatters’ have rights in most states of America based on how long they have been occupying the property. The tussle regarding the rightful owner and the legal possession of such properties is a constant problem for years.

Here is all you need to know legally about squatting law and squatter’s rights.

What Is Squatting?

1.     Who Are Squatters?

Squatters may not necessarily be a bohemian who occupies someone else’s home for a brief period. Instead, ‘squatters’ can refer to some individual or a group of individuals who occupy an abandoned or empty residence or land without permission from the law. The person neither owns the property nor pays any rent for living there. There is no legal right or any lease agreement lent out to them. It happens without the owner knowing anything about the matter. However, it is legal to squat in the United States, and there are squatters’ rights in almost all the states.

A squatter may have adverse possession of a vacant property if they happen to live there for a specified period of time. A property owner who does not come to inspect their property for a long time, and has no idea about the squatting for a significant period could lose the title to the squatters.

2.     Why Do People Squat?

In defense of the squatters, they feel it’s right to use something abandoned and left to waste, especially when there is a crisis for money or living space. Underprivileged or needy people who do not make enough money to pay rent for an apartment often resort to the act of squatting. They generally do not have ill intentions and put the uninhibited properties to better use, which is why the law does not find them at fault.

Is Squatting The Same As Trespassing In Terms Of Vacant Property?

Squatting is not the same as trespassing. While trespassing is illegal and punishable by law, squatting isn’t. Trespassers refer to people unlawfully entering a property or carrying out illegal activities. However, squatters occupy abandoned properties without ill intentions and are usually in continuous possession of the place for a statutory period.

Squatting may only be punishable or result in eviction, when:

  • Squatters show fraudulent documents to claim pretentious legal possession of the property in question.
  • People carry out illegal activities while squatting.
  • Squatters do not fulfil the requirements to claim adverse possession.

Squatting Laws And Legal Requirements To Claim Adverse Possession

Squatter’s rights guide: squatting law

There are a few legal requirements for squatters to claim adverse possession of a vacant property in the US or file a lawsuit against the property owner on charges of forceful eviction.

  1. Hostile Claim

The squatter must know that someone else is the rightful owner, and they must have good reasons to occupy it.

  1. Actual Possession

The squatter must treat the property as their own, physically live there every day, and make efforts to beautify, improve or maintain the premises.

  1. Open & Notorious Possession

The squatter must be open about their occupation of the vacant property and not hide it.

  1. Exclusive Possession

This means that the squatter should be the only person living in the vacant house and not share it with other tenants or squatters.

  1. Continuous Possession

Lastly, the most important clause is that in order to claim your legal rights as a squatter, you must reside in the property for a statutory period uninterruptedly.

What Are Squatters Rights?

A squatter has the right to file a lawsuit if they are evicted from an abandoned property by the owner after a certain period specified by the law. In that case, the law enforcement officer may give the verdict in favor of the squatter if they fulfill the above-mentioned legal criteria or requirements.

Every US state has its own set of squatters laws and time period of continuous possession to exercise the rights. Sometimes, there are special local laws, too, in addition to the state laws. Go through Legal Information Institute to have a clear idea on the matter.

Squatter’s rights guide: squatting law

For instance, states like Hawaii, Delaware, Georgia, Ohio, New Jersey, etc., have set the time period of continuous possession to 20 years. In Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Vermont, Nevada, Oklahoma, etc., the time shortens to 15 to 20 years, while New York, Alabama, Alaska, New Mexico, Nebraska, Texas, Iowa, mention 10 years as the required time frame. In states like Montana, Tennessee, Florida, and California, the continuous possession period is not even 7 years. This implies that if the property owner can evict the squatter from the land owned before completing the required possession period according to the particular state, the squatter cannot claim rights.

There are other local laws, too, in support of squatting. For instance, New York City allows squatters living for more than 30 days on an abandoned property to claim to live as tenants without signing any lease agreement.

Squatting Laws And Eviction Process

The only ways to lawfully evict squatters are:

  • Settle the matter with the squatter by paying them. This isn’t the ideal thing to do, but it helps to save time and avoid a legal battle. Property owners often evict squatters by paying them, especially if they are sure to lose a legal battle with the squatter on all grounds.
  • Turn the land owned to a rental property by converting the squatters to tenants.
  • Hiring an attorney to file an eviction notice to the squatter, post which they shall be served with an unlawful detainer suit if they fail to leave.
  • Filing a case against the squatter if the lawyer finds grounds that do not make them have any rightful claim of adverse possession of the property.

Final Words

As an attorney in the US, it is vital to be aware of squatting laws in the country as well as the individual state and local laws pertaining to squatter’s rights. You must be well informed to explain to your client the cases where the squatters may have the right to claim adverse possession of the abandoned property and the legal ways of claiming rights or carrying out an eviction process. Keep an eye on informative websites like Wikipedia to be updated about the laws related to real estate squatting.

Comments on this guide to squatter’s rights article are welcome.

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