Finding a squatter is likely a property owner’s worst nightmare, but it can happen. And it’s important to know exactly what to do when the situation arises.
Here’s everything you need to know about squatters, squatters’ rights, how to avoid having squatters in the first place, and how to deal with squatters if it happens to you.
What is a squatter?
When you hear the word “squatter,” you might think of young punks in 1980s New York City living in abandoned lofts. But the reality is that any vacant property anywhere, at any time, can have squatters. A squatter is someone who gains entrance to a property with intent to live and with no legal right to do so (such as a lease or title). In time — generally quite a long time — a squatter could potentially take adverse possession of the property through involuntary transfer.
How to avoid squatters
The best way to deal with squatters is to prevent them in the first place. Among the ways you can secure your property:
- Change the locks as soon as you take possession of a property or a tenant leaves at the end of a lease.
- Make sure all points of entry, like doors and windows, are locked and well-secured.
- Remove outdoor items like ladders that could aid illegal entry.
- Have bright motion sensor lights set up outside.
- Attempt to make the property look occupied. You might park a car outside, set up indoor light timers, etc. Make sure mail isn’t accumulating and the lawn is kept up so it doesn’t look vacant.
- Hire a management or security company to physically check on the property if you cannot.
- Try to avoid long periods of time in which the property is unoccupied.
- Have tenants sign leases stating their guests can only stay for a certain period of time.
- Place visible “No Trespassing” signs around the property.
Related: How to Find a Good Property Manager
Trespassing vs. squatting
The longer a squatter remains on a property before you start official proceedings against them, the more right they have to the property. Squatters may get utilities set up in their name and receive mail at the property. In most states it takes many, many years for a squatter to gain full possession of a property, and it often involves paying utilities and sometimes property taxes. In some states, possession of 30 days constitutes tenancy.
What to do if you discover a squatter
- Call the police immediately. The police will determine if the person in question is trespassing (criminal) or squatting (civil). In the case of the former, they may remove them. In place of the latter, they won’t. Regardless, a police report will be filed—an important first step in getting the squatter removed.
- Call your attorney. You won’t want to make any legal missteps that could prolong getting the squatters to leave.
- Take legal action. This is usually first an eviction notice and then an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Again, consult with an attorney familiar with these matters in your area.
- Once you win your case legally, you can have law enforcement, like a sheriff, remove the squatters. The exact protocol may depend on where you live.
- Dispose of any left-behind possessions by following the law.
What you shouldn’t do if you discover a squatter
- Don’t try to forcibly remove them.
- Don’t shut off utilities.
- Don’t use aggressive intimidation tactics.
In short, as frustrating as it may be to discover a squatter on your property, you should never take the law into your own hands. There are legal pathways to regaining your property and you should follow them to the letter. Any erratic action on your party will make you look like the predatory one in the situation and could get you in legal trouble.
Erin Behan is a writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience covering real estate, travel, and restaurants. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her two kids and one gregarious cat.