If you own property in Pennsylvania it is important for you to understand squatters’ rights so that you know who a squatter is, how the law works in their favor and how you can protect your property.
In this state, a squatter is anyone who occupies an unoccupied home or property without permission. In many cases that individual might believe that they are a legal tenant. There are many nonprofit agencies across the state notorious for teaching people how to use adverse possession laws in their favor and there are con men everywhere who trick individuals into signing fake leases and paying rent for those fake leases.
Adverse possession laws were enacted by the Homestead Act of 1862. These laws allow individuals to come into possession of a given piece of property if they have lived there for a specific length of time, done so publicly, made improvements to the property, and typically have a deed to the property and have paid either rent or property taxes on said property.
The original owner is burdened with making use of their property and forcing any squatters to leave. It is incumbent upon the property owners to make sure, in many states, that the land they own in the property which is unoccupied is serving a purpose and improving the community around it. If a piece of land with a dilapidated home is left on its own untouched for decades then the courts are likely to vote in favor of the squatter who has tried to make improvements.
Landlords and property owners need to make sure that they can prove they legitimately own the land because the squatters have the right to make use of the property once they have entered it and, if they have lived there long enough, become the legal owners of the property.
Pennsylvania squatters’ rights can affect real estate anywhere. The squatting rights in Pennsylvania, also known as adverse possession claim laws, are legal routes that a person can take to illegally vacate the land.
Squatters’ rights work by providing the squatter an opportunity to avoid trespassing on unoccupied premises with a claim that they have been a legal tenant and paid rent for the statutory period within the state. While you can’t evict a squatter the same as a tenant, if they claim squatters’ rights they are claiming legal ownership over your land. With a lawyer you have to go to court to try and protect your property and evict the squatter.
The squatter has to be able to prove that they have lived there for a sufficient amount of time, they have treated the property well by making improvements, they have done so publicly rather than hidden in the home and, in some cases, they have paid a mortgage or rent or property taxes for the duration of their stay.
All 50 states have squatters’ rights, but of course, how long individuals live on a given property differs by state:
In all 50 states, in order to qualify for adverse possession laws, a squatter has to undergo litigation with the court to claim legal ownership over the vacant property and they must prove that they were on that piece of property for the statutory period during which time it was their main place of residence. They also have to claim that they have a deed to the property or that they paid property taxes for a specific length of time.
Note: In most states, the amount of time for which someone has paid property taxes as a squatter is not as long as the statutory period for living on that property.
In Alabama, for example, the requirement is that a squatter paid taxes OR has a deed for 10 years according to the Code of Alabama. By comparison, in Alaska, a squatter needs to be living on the property with a deed for seven years or paying taxes for 10 years. In Arizona, that number has dropped to three or more years. And in California, it is only five years.
Today, nonprofit organizations in different states have attempted to use squatters’ rights as a legitimate way for individuals to possess property. In places like California and Chicago, nonprofits use these laws to help poor people take unoccupied property as their own.
Removing squatters 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 a verbal agreement with the owner to make improvements on the property instead of paying rent, even if the owner was a fraud.
If you believe you have squatters on your property, the first thing you need to do is call the police. At this point you will ask the squatters to leave. If they claim squatters’ rights or claim that they are a legal tenant, then you have to serve them with an eviction notice. If that doesn’t work, you will have to file a lawsuit to counter the adverse possession lawsuit they filed against you.
Given the squatting rights in Pennsylvania, it is important to protect your home.
The first step in protecting your property from squatters is to visit regularly. Given that some states have a much lower threshold for squatters to be given legal rights to a property — like California where the minimum is only five years compared to Colorado which requires 18 years — the more often you or someone else visits the property, the more likely it is that you will spot squatters early on and be able to remove them.
Installing window locks around every window will ensure that the perimeter of your home is protected. Squatters will use any point of entry they can find but if your windows are sealed, it is unlikely they will be able to use them to get inside.
Tangentially, install steel fittings to your windows and your doors. This level of security is something that will prevent almost all squatters, and of course anyone out to rob you.
Be sure you don’t have any points of access on the roof. Squatters are able to claim the legal right to a property if they can get inside through an existing opening or a previously vandalized point of entry. This goes hand-in-hand with the first three steps in that the more steel fittings and locks you have, the less likely there will be a point of entry through which squatters can access your property. Moreover, the more often you visit, the more likely you are to see a vandalized point of entry and fix it before it lets someone in you don’t want.
Alarms make for the best anti-intruder devices. Many alarm companies will advise that you install things like window locks and steel fittings around each of your windows, sliding glass doors, front doors, garage doors and any other potential points of entry. With linked alarm systems you can receive notifications on your smartphone the moment something has happened on your property. If you install cameras with your alarm system your smartphone can display images of what is happening.
If you aren’t the one able to visit the property regularly, ask a neighbor. Have a neighbor nearby if possible who you can count on to check on your property once a month. At the very least, have someone you can call when your alarm system triggers something untoward. Having a physical presence at the home sooner rather than later can make all the difference if you live out of state.
Finally, consider capping off any utilities you have. Capping off your utilities will make it particularly challenging for squatters to reconnect things like electricity and in general that will act as a severe deterrent. If you are planning to refurbish your property you can get rid of your fuse board entirely for the time being.