What is a Squatter?
An Essential Property Management Term
A squatter is someone who starts living on a property they don’t own without permission. While they don’t have any legal claim to the property (as they aren’t tenants), they may gain “squatter’s rights” after a period of time.
Squatters typically target unoccupied property that isn’t closely monitored and break in. The difference between a trespasser and a squatter is the amount of time spent within the property (and the number of rights gained as a result). In most states, trespassers can be removed by law enforcement. However, once the person has occupied the property for a set period of time, they acquire certain rights that force the landlord or property owner to pursue litigation in order to reclaim the unit.
It’s important to note that the amount of time before a trespasser becomes a squatter varies from state to state, which is just one reason to stay up to date on your local landlord-tenant laws. For example, Investopedia notes that New York State squatters who continuously occupy a property for 30 days “gain the legal right to remain on the property as a tenant of the owner even though they never signed a lease agreement.”
Few people actually look forward to breaking the law, which may have you wondering who a typical squatter would be. Though the following list from The Balance isn’t exhaustive, it offers common scenarios that lead to a squatting situation:
- An unhoused person needs shelter and finds a foreclosed home.
- A tenant stops paying rent and refuses to leave.
- A roommate of a former tenant demands to stay in the unit after the lease ends.
- An activist advocating for unhoused populations finds a loophole to move into an unoccupied property.
Is Squatting Legal in the U.S.?
No, squatting is illegal in the United States. However, because squatters can gain rights depending on how long they’ve occupied a property, it’s critical that landlords regularly check unoccupied units, post “no trespassing” signs, and screen their tenants carefully to mitigate the risk that a squatter will move in.
How to Tell If a Squatter Has Moved In (And What to Do)
Luckily, there are a few telltale signs that reveal the presence of a squatter, including:
- Unexpected cars in the driveway of your property
- Changed locks
- Higher than expected water and/or utility bills
If a squatter has moved into your property, “the owner needs to serve [them] a Notice to Vacate/Surrender Possession document that includes language outlining that the persons in possession are squatters and have no legal right to be in possession of the property,” said attorney Eileen M. Kendall, who specializes in real estate law and business law.
From there, the owner can file the unlawful detainer complaint in the superior court to get a write of possession, which can be executed by the sheriff to remove the squatter.
Looking to learn more? Our blog on squatters’ rights and how to avoid getting a squatter can help keep your investment safe!
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