Landlording & Rental Properties

What Landlords Need to Know About Squatter’s Rights

Expertise: Landlording & Rental Properties
25 Articles Written
Grungy Old Door With A Yellow Eviction Notice

Throughout history, laws have been in place to protect the ownership of property rights. It seems straightforward—if you purchase a property, then you own the rights and the only tenants allowed to live in the property are ones you authorize to do so. Oddly, this is not the case.

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Though rare, it is possible that unauthorized occupants may take up residence at your property. If you are a landlord or property investor and find yourself in this unnerving situation, there are certain steps you need to take to protect your property without violating any existing regulations.

What Are Squatter’s Rights?

An unauthorized occupant, otherwise known as a squatter, is someone who continuously occupies or uses a property as if it was their own without legal permission from the property owner. Specific timelines and details vary from state to state, but if there is an absence of eviction from the property owner, the right to obtain ownership of the property may apply through adverse possession laws.

If unauthorized individuals who don’t pay you any rent move into your property and you are unaware of the situation, you could find yourself in a tricky spot. Most rules and regulations surrounding squatter’s rights require landlords to treat squatters as if they were renters who failed to pay rent and serve them with an eviction notice.

According to adverse possession laws, if a certain period of time passes and you—the property owner—have not served an eviction notice and the squatters remain, whoever pays the property taxes, utilities, and other fees will legally have rights to obtain ownership of the property.

Related: Squatters: What’s Legal, What’s Not, & How to Get Rid of Them

Definition of Adverse Possession

If a squatter has physical possession of your property, adverse possession is the process to then acquire the title to the property they occupy. Simply occupying an abandoned or unused property isn't enough to warrant an adverse possession claim; the squatter must continuously reside in or make use of the property.

Certain conditions must be met by the squatter like occupying the property for a specific period of time (generally a number of years), open and obvious use of the property, improvements made to the property by the squatter, or no eviction attempts from the actual property owner.

What Is a Squatter?

If there has been any sort of landlord-tenant relationship or conversation between the owner or property manager and an unwanted occupant, then they don't qualify as a squatter. This includes situations like the following:

  • A holdover tenant who refuses to move out at the end of their lease agreement. Holdover tenants are legally allowed to remain in a rental property if the property owner or landlord takes no action to evict.
  • A holdover house guest who was at one point permitted to stay at a property by either the current tenant or landlord who then refuses to leave. They might have seriously overstayed their welcome, but they do not have the right to claim the property.
  • Someone converting a commercial property into a living space or other misuse or property violation. They may be in breach of contract but do not have a claim to ownership.
  • A criminal trespasser would not be considered a squatter, though this can be a gray area, as the property owner must prove that the trespasser was in the property without consent (may require evidence of forced entry or posted no trespassing signs).

disheveled living room with broken window fluttering curtains blue apholstered chair

Related: I’ll Never Evict a Tenant—Here’s Why

Examples of Squatting

There are a number of complicated ways a squatter could begin to occupy your property. Generally speaking, a squatter is anyone who has taken up residence or occupies a property without permission from the property owner. Here are some examples of squatting scenarios:

  • Your neighbors build a new fence that crosses onto your property line by 5 feet or so. Whether or not they were aware of the intrusion, your neighbors are now continuously using this piece of your property. If enough time passes according to your state’s adverse possession laws, the neighbors may be able to claim ownership of this piece of property.
  • Your rental property was the victim of a rental scam and the tenants currently occupying your property did not work with you directly. Many rental scammers take advantage of vacant properties and create fake lease agreements, putting the scammed tenants in an unfortunate situation. If they refuse to leave the property, it’s your responsibility as the owner to resolve the situation.

How to Evict a Squatter

However squatters made their way into or onto your property, it’s important to closely follow the law and take immediate action to protect your investment and keep it in your possession.

1. Figure out if you’re dealing with a squatter or a trespasser.

If you discover unauthorized tenants at your property, the first step is to determine how long they’ve been occupying the property. If they’ve been there for a short period of time, you have no trespassing signs posted, or there are indications of forced entry (broken window, etc.), then you are likely dealing with a criminal breaking-and-entering situation and can simply call law enforcement. If none of these situations are present, you may have a squatter.

2. Start the eviction process as soon as possible.

Of course, the first thing you should do is inform the squatters that they do not have your permission to occupy the property and ask them to leave. If that doesn’t work, some landlords have had success offering moving incentives (usually cash) to entice tenants to leave the property.

If you’re dealing with true squatters, the most important thing you can do is start the eviction process as soon as possible to avoid any issues with adverse possession laws. Evictions can be costly and time-consuming, so be sure to take all of the appropriate steps and follow all applicable guidelines.

Related: How to Evict a Tenant: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide

3. Involve law enforcement when necessary.

Involving law enforcement in a true squatter situation can be difficult, as they will want to avoid any false arrests. The burden of proof does fall on you as the property owner in most cases. If someone does refuse to leave your property, calling the police may be beneficial to establish documentation that you’ve discovered unauthorized tenants and asked them to vacate.

Ways to Prevent Squatters

The best way to avoid unauthorized occupants and many other property issues is to visit your property frequently. If you are a long-distance landlord or own many properties, consider hiring a property management company to check in on a regular basis on your behalf.

Here are some other tips to prevent squatters and adverse possession:

  • Be sure to screen for qualified tenants and include clear language surrounding house guests and subleasing in your lease agreement.
  • Conduct regular property inspections, especially upon tenant move-out.
  • If the property is going to be unoccupied for a period of time, consider installing security systems or motion sensor lighting.
  • Keep an eye on rental listing websites to catch any scams that may be targeting your property.

Have you encountered squatters in your property? How did you handle it? Have you heard any nightmare squatting stories from other owners?

Leave a comment below.

Aside from being a landlord and real estate investor himself, Nathan founded Rentec Direct, a software company that serves the rental industry. Today he works with over 13,000 landlords and proper...
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    Thomas Purcell New to Real Estate from Richmond VA
    Replied about 2 months ago
    This was an interesting article. My Uncle had a problem with squatters a long time ago.
    Sol Romand
    Replied about 2 months ago
    We're facing an issue with this now. A family property is finally going thru probate in California 4 years after a relative's death. Meanwhile the home attendant has been living there and paying taxes on the property. Wondering what they'll have to go thru to get the home vacant.
    Scott Assink
    Replied about 1 month ago
    We had a piece of property that we purchased in 2013. This piece of property was only land, there were no structures. The brother of the original owner was putting junk on the property. Very long story short, he (the brother) ended up suing us for Adverse Possession. He lost. He appealed it all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court where he also lost. Now we are technically being sued in the United States Supreme Court.
    Stephen Predmore Rental Property Investor from Baltimore, MD
    Replied about 1 month ago
    My 1st rental had been vacant for several months before I closed on it. This was a fixer upper and didn't see the need to do yet another final walk-thru. The next morning I went to the house to change the locks and discovered someone living in the upstairs bedroom. I immediately left and called the police. Guns drawn when they entered the property, they took about an hour to escort her and her stuff out. The cops knew of her as being a squatter in the past. They then drove her to a homeless shelter. It was certainly an unnerving experience on day 1 of my REI journey.
    Scott Assink
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Definitely unnerving, but this only cost you less than one day. Consider yourself lucky. Good luck on the rest of your REI journey.
    Craig Anderson
    Replied about 1 month ago
    The ability of a group of people to take a property away from its rightful owner, through squatters' rights, is part of U.S. law, but the ability to do so, seems to operate, only in dire circumstances, including in economic Recessions, or in Depressions, when prudent actors, who would otherwise be gainfully employed, have little or no other recourse, for their existence, than to occupy property owned by someone else. And in such circumstances, law enforcement people maybe are unable or unwilling to drive off of any such property, those squatting on it. (In the 1930's Great Depression, many local governments were unable to get enough funding to carry out their assignments. And this would include, for police dept.'s without enough money, then for fuel, into patrol cars, to go respond to criminal activities, &/or, not enough money, for other police functions.) Additionally, in such dire circumstances, local police might sympathize with the plight of squatters, & choose to turn a blind eye to squatters continue to occupy a property or properties. Additionally, 2 things must be operative, for a group of people to hold a property, as they claim as their own; (1), they must do so, expressing hostility to any one else, seeking to be involved with any such property, & (2), they need to put up at least one written sign, whch indicates in some way, that the property they occupy, is claimed by them, as well as an intent to defend such a property against any other claimants to it. (Such a sign or signs, do not need to be written in any special way, nor have certain phrases, nor do they even need to be with properly spelled words.) The word, prudent, is used in the law, for those claiming for a mine, & prudent is an important word, when dealing with squatters, should the situation end up in a court proceedings, due to the judge will be looking at if the squatters are acting prudently, given their circumstances, & should be allowed to remain on any property they claim, or should be ejected off any such property. The length of time, in which squatters need to go in opposing others for a property, until the squatters end up owning any such property, is either 7 years, or maybe it's 10 years. And they need to pay all the sundry costs, involved with any property they are claiming. An example of how squatters' rights were used for taking away property of others, is a fairly well known one, which took place, years ago, in the southern U.S., in which local withes suddenly drove local blacks out of their houses, & threatened to kill said blacks, if they returned. And over at least a decade, local whites ended up in possession of said deeded property of the blacks, through ocuupying said properties, as well as paying the property taxes due on said properties. To conclude, although it's possible for one individual to carry out adverse possession of a property, in taking it away from who owns it; it is more likely that it's a group of people, in the U.S., who would be successful in doing so, particularly due to the number of years, involved in doing so. Interestingly, the 1863 Homestead Act, follows this scheme of a given number of years, of a claimant occupies public land, at they end of which, the claimant is given means to title said land, as the claimants property, in a recorder's office. But the Homestead Act is for public lands, & not for private property, already listed as owned by someone.
    Alexander F Pollock Rental Property Investor from Glassboro, NJ
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Good information here. Made me think of the latest time Eddy Murphy hosted Saturday Night Live, he did a bit about “squatters rights” lol
    Lev Zaitsev
    Replied about 1 month ago
    This article makes so sense. The “squatter” has to pay property taxes for 7-30 years on the said property for adverse possession to apply. If you don’t pay property taxes on said property for 7-30 years your shouldn’t own it in the first place. If you have a squatter, call the police for trespassing.
    Lev Zaitsev
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Sorry I’m advanced to the author but I am not sure who screened this article, or proof read it. It needs to be removed.