California is the single most populated state in the country. Because of this, many people tend to take residency in places that technically do not belong to them. These people, known as “squatters,” might even have a legal right to this property. It can be very upsetting for landlords to discover that squatters have inhabited their rental property. You might think it would be as easy as kicking out the unwelcome residents or calling the police, but it is much more complex than that. It can also be upsetting to occupy and maintain a space for years at a time, just for someone to try to kick you off the property. That is why squatter’s rights exist.
At Steven Adair MacDonald & Partners, P.C., we have been solving landlord-tenant disputes for over 30 years. We can understand both sides of the story. In addition, we know what it takes to solve a dispute between the two parties, even if the tenant is an unauthorized one. In this post, we’ll tell you what you need to know both as a landlord dealing with squatters or as a squatter yourself.
What is a Squatter?
A squatter refers to a person who is taking up residence in someone else’s property without their knowledge or consent. This typically occurs in either an abandoned, foreclosed, or otherwise unoccupied building. It can also occur on a piece of land that is seemingly unoccupied. This occupancy is done without the property owner’s lawful permission and most often, without their knowledge.
Why do Squatters Have Rights?
As a landlord, you might think that there’s a simple solution to this problem – call the cops! Well, you might be surprised to find that squatting is actually legal in the United States. This is because while it sounds a lot like trespassing, it isn’t the same.
Trespassing is a criminal offense. Squatting, however, doesn’t always meet the criteria for criminal behavior, as it is typically done in a civil manner. Squatting arguably only becomes illegal if the landlord has clearly established that the squatters are unwelcome on their property.
Squatter’s rights begin with the occupant’s right to receive notice before being displaced from the property. As such, landlords must serve unauthorized occupants with an eviction notice just as they would a paying tenant. They must send the notice via mail or through local law enforcement officers rather than simply kick them out on their own. This is to save both parties from any sort of altercation that might result from a face-to-face meeting.
Squatter’s rights were originally drawn from Great Britain’s property laws, which distinguish the line where each property owner’s land begins and ends. The laws also came about as a result of residents in larger cities seeking affordable housing and protections. It allowed these people the rights to revamp and occupy abandoned spaces.
What are Squatter’s Rights in California?
Squatters may not be kicked out of a property without prior notice. Furthermore, squatters have additional rights when it comes to obtaining ownership of a property. Adverse possession laws may give squatters the right to gain ownership of land or property if the true owner fails to interject within a certain time period. So long as the squatter pays things like homeowners’ association fees, taxes, and other property costs after a set time, they’re sometimes able to legally gain title of the property.
This is not to say that a trespasser can move onto your property and simply claim ownership. The land or building must have been neglected or abandoned before the individual (or individuals) began caring for it. The squatter must have been maintaining or caring for the property long enough that evicting them would be unfair and create undue hardship.
Nearly every state has regulations for squatter’s rights. Across the U.S., there are typically five legal requirements that must be met for an adverse possession claim to be made. These are that the use of the property must be:
- Not to mean violent or aggressive. Instead, hostile in this case means adverse to the interests of a property owner.
- Meaning the squatter actually possesses the property and treats it as if it were his or her own home.
- Open & Notorious
- The occupant isn’t attempting to hide their squatting. Their occupancy is obvious to everyone, including the property owner.
- Exclusive possession
- Squatter must be the only one in possession of the land.
- Continuous possession
- Squatter must prove that they have been residing in the property for an uninterrupted amount of time.
In the state of California specifically, the legal requirements for a squatter to gain ownership of a property also include the following:
- Where it remains protected by a substantial enclosure.
- Where it has been regularly cultivated and/or improved.
- The land has been occupied and claimed for at least 5 years continuously.
- The squatters have been paying all state, county, or municipal taxes for the 5 or more years that they occupied the land or property.
How do Squatter’s Rights Work in California?
The best way to explain how squatters’ rights work is to paint a hypothetical picture. Let’s say that two people, Julia and Seth, have been neighbors in San Francisco for years. There is no wall that separates their two properties, and Julia begins putting lawn furniture on what is actually Seth’s property. Over time, Julia converts the area into a covered patio equipped with things like chairs, an outdoor table, and maybe even a fire pit. Seth never objects to this at first. Five years pass, all the while Julia has been paying property taxes on this piece of land.
Now, Seth decides he wants to reclaim that property that was technically his land to begin with. He files a claim, but under California’s adverse possession laws, Julia may be more successful in filing a claim that establishes ownership of the land than Seth would be in kicking her off of it.
This is not to say that Julia can claim all or even the better half of Seth’s lawn. Only the area that she has been actively maintaining and cultivating over 5+ years would become rightfully hers. Due to the evident nature of her development and maintenance of the property (meaning it was obviously visible to Seth for years), the court likely wouldn’t have sympathy for Seth once he suddenly decided to take action.
This can apply to both small pieces of overlapping land or even an entire apartment or house. If the squatter takes up in an abandoned house and repairs it over the designated period of time while meeting all other requirements, they may be able to possess ownership.
Which States Have Squatters Rights?
The regulations for squatters rights vary from state to state, but all 50 states have them. The major difference in these laws is the timeline for how long an occupant must have resided there before they claim the rights to the property. Louisiana and New Jersey have the longest time period, requiring 30 years of uninterrupted occupancy. California (alongside
Montana) requires the least amount of time: 5 years.
How and when these rights become enforced depend wholly on the state in which the squatter and property owner reside.
How to Get Squatter’s Rights?
To get squatter’s rights in California, you must ensure that the property you plan to occupy or are already occupying is completely vacant. If another person (or people) reside on the property, you might be trespassing rather than squatting.
You also may only receive squatter’s rights if you have physically occupied the property for the required amount of time. Again, in California, the requirement is 5 years. During these 5 years, you must have taken open and continuous use of the property. You cannot have attempted to hide your occupancy from anyone. You must treat the property as if it were your own, not as if you were living there in secrecy.
While living on the property, you must have also been paying property taxes for the entirety of your occupancy. Finally, you must use the property exclusively. It cannot be that you are sharing it with other people or even on behalf of another person.
If you have met all of these requirements, you have a claim for squatter’s rights and may well be able to assume ownership of the property.
How to Prevent Squatters
As long as they have not abandoned or neglected the property, courts in California generally work in favor of the landlord or property owner. However, there are still certain ways they must go about dealing with a squatter.
As a landlord or property owner, the first thing you should do is inspect the property on a regular basis. For squatters to legally reside on your property, they must do so in open and plain view. If you perform regular inspections, you should be able to notice squatters inhabiting your property.
You also want to ensure that the property is secured. Make sure all entrances and exits, doors, and windows are locked and blocked off. If the area is unoccupied, hanging “No Trespassing” signs can also help prevent squatters.
If you notice that squatters are present, take immediate action to serve written notices of eviction. You might also offer to rent the property to the squatters, or otherwise pay them to leave. The latter might not seem like the most ideal option, but if a legal battle ensues, it could end up saving you money in the long run.
If after everything the squatters still refuse to leave, call your local sheriff’s department to have them removed from the property. You should also hire a landlord lawyer to help fight back in the case that the squatters work to obtain property rights.
Get Legal Help Now
At Steven Adair MacDonald & Partners, we represent both sides of the law. Our firm seeks positive solutions to disputes, including matters of squatters rights, between landlords and tenants throughout the Bay Area. Whatever your legal real estate or property matter, you can depend on our experienced San Francisco attorneys can help protect your rights. Schedule your consultation today by calling 415-956-6488 or fill out our online contact form here.