Let’s set the scene; you’re property has been vacant for a while, you go to visit, and suddenly you realize you have squatters. This is a potentially dangerous and costly situation that must be handled immediately. Many landlords do not realize that although they did not lawfully enter, squatters have rights. Understanding the best way to proceed to both protect your property and yourself is essential in case the unfortunate situation arises. So, below we take a look at how to handle and how to avoid squatters in your rental property.
What is a Squatter?
Most people think of a squatter as someone who breaks into your home. However, there are several scenarios in which you could find yourself dealing with an unauthorized occupant. Squatters are defined as anyone who unlawfully occupies an uninhabited residence. Examples of these persons are:
- Any person who breaks into your property and takes up residence
- An authorized tenant who stops paying rent or does not vacate once the lease expires
- Victims of fraudulent rental ads who signs a lease and pays rent to a scammer
Are Trespassers the Same as Squatters?
Well, no, they are not. While both instances involve someone entering your home illegally, there are important distinctions.
A person trespasses onto your property unlawfully and takes up residence. This becomes a civil matter in a court of law and requires an eviction process.
A trespasser enters your property illegally the same as a squatter would. However, trespassing can result in arrest and a criminal charge.
How Can Landlords Prevent Squatters?
Although you cannot protect against every scenario as a landlord, there are definite steps you can take to protect your investment. These steps can be made at any time but are especially vital if your property experiences extended vacancy. Check out these tips below.
- Have a trusted neighbor or property manager check the property regularly
- Inspect the property periodically for signs of trespassers
- Post “Private Property” of “No Trespassing” signs around the home and at any points of entry
- Steer clear of applicants with poor rental histories
- Maximize marketing to limit vacancy time
- Install a Security System
What Are Squatters’ Rights?
It may be hard to believe that someone who unlawfully takes occupancy of your home has rights, but they do. Squatters rights allow persons to occupy a property without the owner’s permission if they have not been formally served an eviction notice. In most states, a squatter can claim legal possession if they can prove adverse possession.
Adverse possession means they are open about living there without the owner’s permission. Additionally, they haven’t signed a lease and have lived there illegally for long enough that they become the new legal owner. The length of time required varies from state to state. For example, in Pennsylvania, it takes 21 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim.
What Should You Do if You Discover Squatters?
While your immediate reaction may be to try to throw them out, do not take matters into your own hands. Despite the situation being potentially dangerous, you can find yourself in legal trouble. So, if you discover squatters, follow these steps.
- Call the Police: When you discover someone in your property, you need to know if they are simply a trespasser or a squatter. Relying on local law enforcement is the best way to handle the situation. If they are found to be trespassing, the police can remove them. However, if they are squatters, the police will be able to inform you that civil steps are now necessary.
- Eviction Notice: To remove someone in the property, you must present proper notice. Serving an eviction notice is a legally binding way to inform squatters to vacate the property. If you are lucky, they may leave after receiving the notice; if they don’t, you at least have some recourse.
- File a Civil Claim: Requirements for this vary from location to location, so be sure to research local laws thoroughly. In general, you will need to attend an eviction hearing.
- Authorities Evict Squatters: After the case has been heard in court and you win the eviction proceedings, squatters can be evicted. While it may consist of a small fee, having law enforcement remove the squatters is the safest option.
Important Things to Avoid When Evicting Squatters
- Do not just throw out personal items: In any eviction, some things may be left behind. Even though you will be anxious to clean, check with a legal professional regarding your requirements. In some states, you may need to hold the items for a specific timeframe.
- Do not attempt eviction alone: Eviction is a legal process, even for those who were unlawful, to begin with. Never attempt to remove someone by any of the following means, doing so may result in hefty court fines:
- Installing additional locks or changing the locks
- Shutting off the utilities
- Physical or verbal intimidation
- Removing their belongings
Why is it Important to Deal with Squatters Immediately?
As we discussed above, once a squatter sets up residence in your property, the clock is ticking. By letting the squatter stay without any action on your part bolsters their adverse possession claim. To protect your investment property, begin the process as soon as they are discovered, failing to do so can result in:
- Additional or Worse Damage: Out of retaliation or fundamental lack of care, a squatter can do more damage the longer they are in the property.
- Extended Vacancy Time for Finding a Legal Tenant: The longer a non-paying tenant occupies the home, the more time you are losing potential rent. Repairs needed after a squatter vacates may also slow down the rental process.
- Costs You Added Time and Money: Court fees, repairs, and lost rent are just some of the expenses landlords face while dealing with squatters.
- A More Difficult Time Claiming Ownership: As we mentioned, the longer a squatter is in the property, the more likely a state’s squatters’ rights will apply.
As you can see, discovering squatters is a potentially dangerous and costly situation. To minimize damages on your part, these situations must be handled legally and swiftly. Follow these tips above for how to handle and how to avoid squatters in your rental property. One of the best defenses is to fill vacancies with a qualified and legal tenant quickly. Do you need help marketing your property to potential renters? Contact us today!