Here Are Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Squatter’s Rights in 2021
As a property owner, there are few things more frustrating than realizing that someone has been using your property without your permission. What’s even more annoying is when that unlawful tenant claims squatter’s rights.
You may only be familiar with squatter’s rights as a punchline–many a sitcom character has yelled, “Squatter’s rights!” when discovered somewhere they shouldn’t be.
What does the term actually mean, though? How do they work? Do they even exist outside the realm of television?
The answer is complex, involving tenant rights and something called adverse possession.
Read on to learn more about the rights of both tenants and landlords, as well as how to evict a tenant who is unlawfully using your property.
1. Are Squatter’s Rights Real?
The first question you might have is whether squatter’s rights are even real. It’s understandable–it seems unrealistic that people can legally steal your property. Squatter’s rights do exist, but only apply in certain situations.
The first thing you need to know is that squatter’s rights don’t apply to owner-occupied properties. In other words, if you own the home you live in, no one can claim squatter’s rights there.
Squatter’s rights do come into play when looking at rental properties, though.
In most cases, squatter’s rights are similar to renter’s rights; the main protection they afford a squatter is the right to receive an eviction notice before they have to vacate.
There are a few different types of eviction notice, depending on the situation and location. For instance, in Florida 3 days notice is often enough, but rules in other states might be different.
In rare cases, squatter’s rights allow the squatter to take possession of the property. This has to do with adverse possession laws, which we’ll get to in a moment.
2. Why Do Squatter’s Rights Exist?
You might be wondering why squatter’s rights exist in the first place. Why protect people who are illegally using someone else’s property? The answer lies in preventing escalation.
If you discover someone squatting on your property, it’s going to upset you. Squatter’s rights exist to make sure you don’t go too far when trying to rectify the situation.
Historically, homeowners often resorted to violence to drive out squatters. That’s no longer acceptable in modern society, and squatter’s rights exist to ensure that a squatter isn’t harmed by the property owner.
More practically, squatter’s rights give you–the property owner–clear guidelines on how to deal with squatters. They lay out landlord rights, giving you legal backing to take the necessary steps to reclaim your property.
This helps ensure that reclamation of property happens in a safe, legal manner, without undue harm to any party.
This is why the distinction between squatters and trespassers is an important one: your legal obligations to squatters are much different than those against trespassers.
3. Squatters or Trespassers?
If someone is occupying your property illegally, they fall into one of two categories: squatters or trespassers. It’s important to know the differences between the two so you can take appropriate action.
A trespasser is someone who is on your property without permission. On the surface, that sounds like a squatter, right? The difference is that squatters occupy a property for much longer than a trespasser.
Think of it like this: if a person is living in your property for a few hours or a few days, they are a trespasser. If they’re in your property for months or even years, they become a squatter.
The legal term is ‘unauthorized tenant,’ and they go through the same eviction process as a normal tenant (as opposed to being forced out without notice).
Keep in mind that squatter’s rights generally don’t apply to your own home (assuming you own the property). Anyone trying to occupy your house without your permission is just a trespasser, not an unauthorized tenant.
4. Adverse Possession
Most of the time, squatter’s rights only offer one protection: the right for an unauthorized tenant to be given notice before being evicted. There is a worse outcome, though, because of adverse possession laws.
Adverse possession allows an unauthorized tenant to take possession of your property themselves. To do so, they must have lived on the property for a long time (years, in most cases) without you trying to evict them.
If the squatter has kept the property in good shape or even made improvements, this strengthens their case. Improvements might be considered a partial payment for the property itself.
There are other steps the squatter must take to claim the property as their own. They often need to pay several years’ worth of property taxes, for instance.
The specifics of adverse possession vary from state to state. Make sure you know the laws for your state so that you can take action before a squatter can build a legitimate claim.
5. How to Evict a Squatter
If you have an unauthorized tenant, you need to act quickly to remove them; the question is, if squatter’s rights are in effect, what steps do you take?
First, make sure you’re dealing with a squatter. You may need to talk to an attorney to determine if the person is trespassing or squatting, since that distinction can be a bit murky to a layperson.
If the person has lived there long enough to qualify as a squatter, your next step is to evict them. Ideally, you can convince the person to leave without getting into a legal battle, but that won’t always be the case.
Serve the squatter an eviction notice. In many cases, a three day notice is sufficient, but check with your attorney to make sure.
If the tenant still refuses to leave, you’ll need to file the notice with your local court to prove that you’ve taken the proper steps. From there, a court date will be set.
Then, it’s just a matter of proving in court that the tenant is unauthorized, which should be easy to do with the right documentation.
Understand Squatter’s Rights
Dealing with squatter’s rights is uncommon, but it’s something you should stay educated on; it can be a headache to deal with if you’re unprepared. Know your landlord rights so that you can deal with squatters quickly.
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