What to Do if Squatters Move In
You just returned from a long vacation to find the locks changed, the lights on and a pot of coffee brewing. You reach for the phone to call the police just as you and a strange man make eye contact through the door. After taking in your surroundings, you realize that someone has set up camp in your home.
The Difference Between Squatting and Trespassing
When faced with an unwanted “guest” you may either have a trespasser or a squatter, but what’s the difference? States differ in the laws regarding what is considered trespassing and what is considered squatting, but the overarching theme is if a guest is unwelcome or asked to leave, then this is considered trespassing. However, if a guest has set up a residency on a property, then this is getting into the realms of squatting. Some states recognize squatting rights and some do not. Check your state’s laws on squatting rights to see what’s required and keep the appropriate documentation in something like a safe deposit box at a bank. That way you have access to it should the need arise.
Legal Rights of Squatting
A squatter is an unwanted, unlawful inhabitant of an abandoned or unused piece of land. Unfortunately, these squatters have rights and cannot be moved immediately. According to U.S. Legal, “a squatter’s right is a legal allowance to use the property of another in the absence of an attempt by the owner to force eviction.”
Squatter’s rights vary depending on the state where the squatter has occupied property. Generally, within the United States, the owner of the property can evict squatters unless they can prove that they have established residency at the property. Common ways squatters prove established residency and tenant rights is to set up utilities in their name, use the home as primary mailing address, and openly take possession of the property. In some states, the squatter would have to prove that they have paid property taxes on the property as well. Once residency has been established, you typically cannot just put them out; you may have to go through an eviction process.
What You Should Do if You Have a Squatter
Unfortunately, getting rid of a squatter can be a long, expensive and painful process. If you have a squatter in either your home or on an owned piece of property, you may want your first step to be calling the police. From there, depending on your state, they may determine if it is trespassing or squatting. If your squatter proves that they have set up residence, thus now considered a squatter, then you may have to give notice of eviction and possibly have to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Once the lawsuit is filed, there will likely be a court process to determine if you or the squatter is the rightful owner of the land. If you win the case and the squatter still does not leave your property, then you may have to call a sheriff to remove the squatter. Once the squatter is removed, you may have to handle their property. Depending on the jurisdiction of your state law’s, you may be able to dispose of it yourself or notify your squatter to retrieve their items.
How to Avoid Squatters
The best way to make sure you never have to face what to do with a squatter is preventing this from ever occurring. Many times squatters are former tenants or rent the property through a vacation rental service, but squatting can occur on any property that is unoccupied. Recently a family in Georgia was traveling for the holidays and returned to find a squatter had occupied their condo. Here are some tips that will help make sure this doesn’t happen to you:
- Make sure the property is secure. Lock all doors and windows to make sure that no one can get in without forced entry.
- Put your lights on a timer.
- Get to know your neighbors and ask them to keep an eye on your property, collect your newspapers, maybe even park in your driveway from time to time to give the appearance that someone is coming and going.
- Ask the post office to stop delivery of your mail while you are gone.
Finally, if you have any concerns that your property may susceptible to squatters, contact your attorney in your jurisdiction to obtain advice with respect to the potential legal matter. The information provided is for general informational purposes only and readers should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without first seeking legal advice from counsel.