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Squatters’ Rights Law & the Legal Definition

What are squatters’ rights? Squatters’ rights refer to the legal rights which protect those who unlawfully occupy a piece of property, or with time, come to own that property. They vary by state, but as a property owner you need to know when they apply and how to fight them.

What Is a Squatter?

A squatter is a person who lives on your land without authorization. They are someone who entered property without permission and unlawfully occupied it. In some cases, squatters do this knowingly and intentionally and in many other cases they incorrectly believe that they have the right to be on the land because of a fraudulent lease agreement, an agreement made with a previous owner, or another legal grey area.

What Are Squatters’ Rights?

Squatters’ rights are a set of rights designed when homesteading was popular. Put into law with the Homestead Act of 1862, these rights were written by a government who wanted to provide legal support for pioneers who moved onto land they perceived as vacant, built a home and started raising livestock or growing crops. This was a way for pioneers to expand the amount of land under the US government at the time.

Even though there might have been a time and a place for specific laws, these laws have yet to be done away with, which means the idea of moving onto vacant land or an empty home and making it your own still exists and the laws still protect squatters.

The Difference Between Squatting and Trespassing

Trespassing is considered a criminal offense and someone who trespasses on land can be arrested for it. Squatting, however, is considered a civil matter. People who are squatting can still be arrested and they can still be evicted from the land if they moved into an occupied property without the owner’s knowledge. 

The biggest difference in legal terms is that a trespasser violates your property in order to gain access so they break a window or break down a door. But a squatter uses an unlocked door, an open, sliding glass window, or an already broken window to get in. 

Which States Have Squatters’ Rights?

All states have squatters’ rights but they vary in terms of how long someone has to live on the property and what qualifies. For example, in Alabama, squatters can take possession if they pay taxes or have a deed for 10 years, according to Title 6, Chapter 5, Section 200 of the Code of Alabama. But in Alaska, a squatter can get the property with a deed if they were living on the property for seven years or paying taxes on it for 10 years.

In Arizona, a squatter must have a deed and have paid property taxes for three or more years. If the land is part of a city lot they need to have a deed and have paid for five years. If a neighbor accidentally or intentionally builds on nearby property, if no owner objects, the neighbor gets the land after two years. California requires taxes be paid on land for only five years to gain adverse possession. But in Colorado, squatters can take possession of land if they have a deed, have paid property taxes for seven years, or have lived there for 18 years.

When Do Squatters’ Rights Apply?

Adverse possession is a legal phrase that allows someone to gain ownership over property without actually paying for that property if:

  • the property is personal
  • they live on that property exclusively
  • they live on the property for the specific length of time dictated by each state
  • the rightful owner of the property does not try to evict them or remove them within that specific length of time

Assuming all of this takes place, squatters’ rights can apply. Squatters’ rights do not differentiate between intentional possession or accidental possession. 

For example, if your neighbor inadvertently builds a fence around a portion of your land but you don’t object to that because you’re unsure of what the actual boundaries are, your neighbor can, after a specific length of time, gain legal possession of what could have been part of your land because of squatters’ rights. 

Steps To Protect Your Property From Squatters

You can call law enforcement if you see that someone is squatting on your property. If they do not leave and they claim squatters’ rights, then you can evict them. Squatting laws by state all allow property owners to evict squatters. There is, however, a time period during which you, as the property owner, must start the eviction process by sending an eviction notice. This timeframe is called the statutory period. 

Given the complexity of removing squatters and the number of organizations out there to help squatters, it is best for you to take steps ahead of time to protect your property in the first place. can be very difficult because there are often cases where squatters claim tenant rights because they signed a fraudulent lease agreement, though they did not know it was fraudulent, and paid rent to a con man or they made an oral agreement with the owner to make improvements on the property instead of paying rent, even if the owner was a fraud.

Given the complexity of removing squatters and the number of organizations out there to help squatters, it is best for you to simply take steps ahead of time to protect your property in the first place.

Step #1: No Trespassing

In order to avoid adverse possession, property owners can post no trespassing signs.

Step #2: Secure Perimeter

On any land owned, especially vacant property, as the rightful owner you should secure the perimeter of your real estate. You don’t want to deal with a fraudulent lease agreement where a squatter allegedly had rent payments or a hostile claim where they believe they have legal possession. Secure your perimeter with things like lights, alarms that make noise, steel enforcement for all your windows and doors and individual alarms on each of your windows. If you have fences, reinforce all of your fences and all of the locks.

Step #3: Alarms

Consider installing alarms, especially alarms that have cameras which can send information in real-time to your smartphone. With this you can view what is happening on your property even if it is a rental property, and have someone take action.

Step #4: Secure Windows and Doors

Be sure to secure all windows and doors. The difference between squatting and trespassing is that squatters claim they have legal rights to another person’s property because of their continuous possession. If a window is already broken they can enter through that window without having trespassed and are then entitled to basic rights. The more secure all of your entrances are, the less likely they will be able to get in.

Step #5: Visits

Visit your property regularly. The more often you or someone else visits the property, the sooner you will be able to catch broken windows or doors through which squatters can enter and the sooner you can prevent squatters.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Squatters’ Rights?

Squatters’ rights are a set of laws referred to as adverse possession laws which allow someone to live on another person’s property if that other person does not take action against them or evict them.

What Is the Difference Between a Trespasser and a Squatter?

A trespasser typically uses force to get into your property like breaking your window. Squatters gain access to your home without forcing entry such as entering your property through a window that has already been broken or using an unlocked door.

Why Is Squatting Not Just tTrespassing?

Squatting is not technically considered trespassing because there are plenty of situations where squatters believe that they inherited the right to live on a piece of property, they have a title that is perhaps a forgery but they are unaware of that, or they had some sort of spoken agreement with a previous owner. In other cases they might have a legitimate agreement with an individual believed to be the legal property owner, but then another family member comes forth explaining that said individual is not the legal owner.

How Long Does Someone Have to Squat in a Home?

This varies by state and it isn’t enough to simply occupy the land without the right to legally do so, but you must also do things like pay rent or property tax, and make improvements to the land. 

How Can You Remove a Squatter?

If you find someone on your property you should call the police immediately. Serve them with an official eviction notice, file a lawsuit against them and then have them and their belongings legally removed.

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