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What Is a Squatter?

A squatter is an individual who occupies a piece of real estate, despite having no legal claim to the property. Squatters live on a property in which they have no legal title, rights or lease agreement. However, this individual may gain legal rights to the property by adverse possession, which is the legal transfer of ownership to a squatter due to continuous occupation of the land. 

Is Squatting a Crime?

In many countries, squatting is in itself a crime, but in others it is only seen as a civil conflict between the property owner and the occupants. Property law and states have a long history of favoring the legal property owner. 

However, in cases where squatters have de facto ownership, laws have been changed to legitimize their status. Adverse possession, also known as squatter’s rights, allows squatters to acquire the property if they meet certain requirements, including living on the property for a certain period of time. 

Legal Rights of Squatters

Each of the U.S states has its own laws regarding squatter rights and adverse possession. For instance, California requires continuous possession for five years for a squatter to acquire privately-owned property. State laws in relation to squatters and adverse possession can be superseded in some cases by local laws.

For example, the state of New York grants adverse possession rights to squatters if they occupy the property for 10 years and hold the property as if they are the real owner. In contrast, the laws in New York City are radically different from New York state. If a squatter occupies a property for consecutively 30 days they gain rights to remain on the property as a tenant of the owner—even if they never signed a lease agreement. 

Squatter vs. Trespasser 

The key difference between a squatter and trespasser is that the squatter occupies the home on a large scale. A trespasser may break into a home and sleep there, but they aren’t considered “living” there. A squatter is someone that has taken occupancy of a property and given the appearance that they are actively living there. 

Trespassers can become squatters, but not all squatters are trespassers. Say a trespasser breaks in and is staying in a vacant investment property that lacks a current tenant. If the individual is in fact trespassing, they can be apprehended by police. However, some police officers will refuse to get involved because that’s right on the line between trespassing and squatting.

Squatters require a legal eviction. Evictions can take up to a year, thus, it may be advisable for property owners to offer some form of cash payment to the trespasser in exchange for vacating the property. 

How to Get Rid of a Squatter

Now that you know more about squatters and the headache they can cause for rental or investment properties, it’s time to learn how to remove squatters. The process of evicting a squatter generally goes something like this:

  • Call police
  • Serve eviction notice
  • File lawsuit
  • Have squatter removed
  • Handle leftover belongings.
If you find a squatter on your property, call the police immediately. The police will determine if the person is a trespasser or a squatter. If they are a trespasser, the police will consider it a criminal issue and remove them. If they are determined to be a squatter, you will need to move on to civil court.

Next, serve the squatter with an eviction notice. Be sure to follow any local requirements about the information that must be included in the eviction notice. 

If the squatter does not leave after being served, it’s time to file a civil lawsuit. Check your state and local laws for details on which court you need to file with. You will have to attend an eviction court hearing.

Once you win the case, you may still need to have the squatter removed. Once you have a final court decision, you can present this to local police to have the squatter legally removed. 

When dealing with squatters, you will often be faced with left behind property. While it may be tempting to immediately dump or sell the items, you may not be legally allowed to do so. Make sure to follow local and state laws and never use force or threats against the squatters.