Are you dealing with squatters? Landlords have enough responsibilities on their plate without having to deal with an unauthorized individual taking up residence in one of their rental properties or units. Not only is this practice, known as squatting, illegal (more on that later), but it’s also a situation that is difficult to navigate as a landlord or property manager.
Squatters aren’t overwhelmingly commonplace. However, if you have a vacant unit, you might find yourself having to deal with one if you aren’t careful.
Unfortunately, it’s possible that a lengthy court battle could ensue. Then, while you’re in the process of trying to evict the squatter, you’d be losing income.
That’s why it’s imperative to understand how to deal with squatters. Here’s everything you need to know.
- What Is a Squatter?
- What are Squatters’ Rights?
- How to Evict Squatters
- How to Prevent Squatters
- Final Thoughts
What Is a Squatter?
Before diving into the answer, it’s important to understand the difference between a trespasser and a squatter.
Why? Well, all squatters are trespassers, but not all trespassers are squatters. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry. Here’s where the distinction lies:
- Trespasser: A trespasser is an individual who knowingly and willingly enters or occupies a person’s land without their permission.
- Squatter: A squatter is an individual who knowingly and willing occupies another individual’s land or property without their permission with a claim of ownership.
Squatters are essentially trespassers who take it one step further. They occupy the property without permission in an attempt to claim ownership.
Legally, this practice is referred to as “adverse possession.” If the squatter fulfills all the common law requirements, they may be able to legally acquire a title to the land.
Squatters often choose properties that are empty or abandoned. That’s because it’s easier to fulfill the requirements of adverse possession in these properties. Unfortunately, they may target rental units that have been vacant for a long period of time.
What are Squatters’ Rights?
Legally, adverse possession laws or “squatter’s rights” are utilized to dissuade the disuse of land. It makes sense that land and property should be used and taken care of, as opposed to abandoned and neglected. In some cases, tenant turnover can act as a beacon for squatters who are targeting unoccupied homes.
Squatters’ right to pursue adverse possession is legally protected under common law. However, each state and locality may have different laws regarding adverse possession. So, it’s important to do your research on state-level adverse possession laws.
In addition to adverse possession protection, squatters are also legally entitled to an eviction notice. This may seem ridiculous, as you didn’t rent to them in the first place. However, you must comply with the law. Failure to do so can result in you being sued or even losing ownership of your property.
How to Evict Squatters
Unfortunately, it can be just as difficult to evict squatters as it is to evict a traditional tenant. Many squatters attempt to gain tenant rights.
That makes it even more difficult to evict them. It can also lengthen the already long eviction process.
If you’re in the process of evicting a squatter, here are the steps you’ll need to take:
1. Remain Calm
It can be extremely frustrating and maddening that a squatter would make their home on your property. However, it’s essential for you to keep a level head and remain calm.
Angrily threatening squatters, forcefully entering the unit, or turning off the utilities are mistakes that can get you in trouble and lead to lawsuits and possibly arrest. Stay calm and approach the situation with caution.
2. Notify the Police
Your first call should be to the police. They’ll be able to determine what the next steps should be.
In most cases, they’ll decide whether the situation is a civil matter or a criminal matter. However, the latter occurs less frequently.
If they determine it to be a criminal matter, then the police will likely instruct the squatter to vacate the premises. They’ll give them some time to comply.
However, if it’s a civil matter, you should ask for documentation of the call or complaint. That’s because it’s likely you’ll have to go to civil court to settle the matter.
3. Send an Eviction Notice
Depending on the period of time that the squatter has occupied the unit, you may be required to send an eviction notice to begin the process of eviction. If that’s the case, you should follow all the typical steps of a tenant eviction. Send the notice via certified mail and keep a record of its receipt.
4. Document All of the Communication with the Unwanted Tenant
Keeping records of all communication that occurs between you and the squatter is crucial. This can act as evidence that you’ve attempted to remedy the situation and have complied with the law. Additionally, if the squatter is aggressive or threatens you in any way, you may use that in court.
How to Prevent Squatters?
The best way to deal with squatters is to prevent them from illegally occupying your property in the first place. Here are some tried-and-true methods for preventing squatters.
- Keep Tabs on Vacant Units. Whether you have your property manager check the place out on a regular basis or you stop by a couple of times a week, make sure you’re checking on your unit.
- Keep Everything Locked and Closed. Make your property difficult to get into by locking every window (even upper stories). You’ll also want to ensure that any entrances including back doors, garages, or storm doors are padlocked closed. A squatter will have to damage your property to get in, which could make your case with the police.
- Install a Security System. You don’t have to pay for an expensive home security system. These days, it’s easy to purchase a motion-sensing camera that’ll send alerts and images to your phone when someone tries to enter the home. This can also act as a deterrent to any squatters who don’t want to be caught. Consider a “No Trespassers” sign.
- Try to Keep Units Filled. This one may seem obvious, but keeping rental units filled may keep squatters out. Offer month-to-month leases on a rental unit until you find tenants that want it for the long haul. You might also consider offering to rent the unit to your squatter to help avoid a lengthy legal process.
- Try an Easement. Whether you give an individual permission to park on the property or allow it to be used as a shortcut, giving a squatter written permission to utilize your property or parts of it will legally prevent them from being recognized as a squatter or trespasser. With an easement in place, they won’t be able to pursue legal use of your property under adverse possession.
As a landlord or property manager, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to deal with squatters often or ever. However, the knowledge about how to deal with squatters should always be in your tool belt. Not only can this knowledge help you prevent squatters, but it can also ensure that you handle the situation delicately and stay in compliance with the law.