Squatters can cause massive headaches for landlords. Even though you own the property, you may not be able to kick out squatters without going through the correct legal processes. In some cases, squatters can even earn legal rights to the property. Here’s what landlords need to know about squatters’ rights and how to evict squatters.
Squatters vs. Trespassers
You might not see much of a distinction between trespassers and squatters. Both groups involve people who are on your property when you haven’t given them permission to be there.
However, trespassers have often accessed the property illegally and have only been there for a relatively short period of time. Squatters, on the other hand, are living on the property. They may be trespassers who decided to stay, or they may be former tenants or owners who refused to leave. They have likely brought some of their personal belongings with them, possibly including furniture.
Whether you’re dealing with a squatter or a trespasser may impact how police will respond and what steps you need to take to remove the individuals from your property.
The Risks Posed by Squatters
Squatters can create many problems for landlords and HOA's.
The presence of squatters will make it impossible for you to rent out the property to legitimate tenants. This means that squatters can prevent you from earning revenue. Squatters may also scare away tenants from neighboring units, further decreasing your income.
Squatters may also cause property damage that will decrease the value of the property and require expensive repairs. Former tenants and owners who are now squatting may purposefully cause property damage as a way of enacting revenge, and squatters may also cause property damage through the course of living there. Squatters who don’t have access to utilities may light fires to stay warm or cook, and these fires can spread out of control. According to KSLA, fire officials in Shreveport, Louisiana believe that squatters caused three separate house fires on a single day in February.
It might seem strange, but squatters do have certain rights under the law. According to the American Apartment Owners Association (AAOA), all fifty states have some sort of adverse possession laws establishing squatters rights. After squatters have lived on the property for a certain period of time, they can claim the title to the land under these adverse possession laws.
The good news is that this takes a long time. In most states, squatters have to live on the property for 10, 15, 20 or even 30 years before they can claim adverse possession. However, some states have much shorter limits. The AAOA says that squatters in California only need to live on the property for five years to claim adverse possession.
Squatters often take advantage of vacant properties, so if you have any vacant properties, you should take measures to deter squatters.
- Monitor the property. You want to detect (and remove) trespassers before they become squatters. You can use security guards, neighborhood watch programs, security cameras and security systems to keep an eye on the area.
- Secure the premises. You don’t want to make it easy for squatters to gain access to the property, so make sure the windows and entrances are secure.
- Consider the property’s appearance. It’s common to board up windows, but keep in mind that this is a fairly obvious sign that a property is vacant, and boarded windows could actually attract squatters.
Former Tenants and Owners
In some cases, squatters are people who used to own or rent the property legally. Maybe they owned the property but lost it to foreclosure. You’ve since purchased the property, but you can’t get the previous owners to move out. Or maybe you had to evict tenants for nonpayment, but they refuse to leave. It’s also possible that the squatters never signed a lease with you. They were subletting from a tenant, and now that the tenant has gone, they simply refuse to leave.
Getting rid of squatters like this can be tricky.
During the pandemic, eviction moratoriums prevented many landlords from kicking out non-paying tenants. Even outside of the pandemic, evicting former tenants and owners can be legally complicated, and you may need to go through a formal eviction process.
Once a desperate and determined squatter gets into a home, it may take a court action to get the squatter out. Talk to an attorney licensed in your state before considering the following steps.
- Know the laws in your states. You may not have the legal right to kick out the squatters on your own, especially if the squatters are former tenants or owners of if they can claim adverse possession. Make sure you know the relevant laws in your state before taking action.
- If you decide to pursue eviction, serve the squatter with a legally reviewed notice of intent to evict due to illegal activity. You can deliver it by hand or via certified mail, and state law may dictate how to serve the notice. Be careful not to put yourself or your employees in danger. Keep in mind that some states may allow or require a sheriff’s deputy to serve the notice.
- File a complaint in the relevant court. The court will then issue a summons granting the squatter an opportunity to answer or respond to your complaint. Follow the court procedure and be prepared for the squatter to present a defense.
- Arrange for removal. Once the court orders eviction, notify your local sheriff to remove the squatter from your home.
Always remember that evicting squatters is a legal process – not a managerial event. It should only be pursued after seeking professional legal advice.
Protect Your Property with Insurance
Squatters rights and other state laws can make it difficult to evict squatters. At the same time, squatters can lead to property damage and liability exposures, so you need to have the right insurance coverage to protect your interests. Honeycomb offers insurance coverage designed for landlords. Learn more and request a quote.