Updated May 2023
Are dealing with squatters unlawfully living in your property?
The rise of squatter incidents have left many landlords feeling helpless, as some laws actually protect squatters and don’t consider the negative impact this activity has on landlords.
Along with the frustration, increased stress, and financial strain caused by illegal occupancy, the eviction process can be drawn out if not done correctly.
And problems like extended vacancies, loss of rental income, potential property damage, increased liability, and difficulty renting and/or selling the property are real!
If you’re a landlord dealing with squatters on your property, we want to share with you how important it is to act quickly. We’re going to share the exact process of dealing with squatters, with practical advice, essential steps, and legal considerations — as well as practical strategies for how to keep squatters away from your property.
By understanding how to handle these squatting situations, you can protect your investment and your rights as a property owner, and minimize the headaches associated with unauthorized occupancies. By the end of this article, you’ll know exactly how to deal with squatters you have in your property now and prevent it from happening again.
A Table Of Contents For Evicting A Squatter
Understanding how to remove squatters isn’t common knowledge for landlords. What steps do you need to take to regain control of your property? In today’s guide, learn just that:
- What Is A Squatter?
- Calculating The Damage Caused By Squatters
- How To Evict A Squatter
- Reminder: What You Can’t Do
- Preventing Squatters From The Start
- FAQs: Evicting Squatters
- How Long Does It Take To Evict A Squatter?
- Why Can’t You Evict Squatters Yourself?
- Can A Tenant Become A Squatter?
- Can You Evict A Squatter After Years?
- What Is Adverse Possession Law?
- How Long Are Squatters’ Rights?
- What Is The Shortest Time For Squatters’ Rights?
- Are There Varyings Laws About How To Evict Squatters?
- What To Do First If Squatters Move In?
- Can You Turn Off Utilities On A Squatter?
- Can Police Remove Squatters?
- Can You Sue Squatters?
- Be Patient With The Process
What Is A Squatter?
Defining who qualifies as a squatter isn’t always easy, but it is important. While there is no single definition because squatters can arise in a few different ways, grasping each unique situation will make you a better landlord.
Squatters are typically defined as individuals who are occupying property without permission. What this means in an exact situation may vary. For example, a squatter may be:
- Someone who breaks into or enters a vacant property and begins living there
- A tenant who stops paying rent and keeps living on the property
- The roommate or subletter who continues to live in a property beyond their rental period
- Someone who was scammed into paying rent for real estate to someone who doesn’t have the right or ability to rent it out
- Anyone who believes they have a right to live on a property that is not currently titled to them
Though you might think of these individuals as trespassers rather than squatters, the legal differences between the two categories showcase important distinctions.
Trespassers vs. Squatters
While the definitions of these two terms may seem very similar, there is a legal difference between a squatter and a trespasser. Identifying the exact difference in practice, however, can be difficult.
In both situations, the individual in question is illegally inside a rental property without permission.
However, trespassing is usually a short-term situation in which the person is not trying to stay there for long. Trespassers do not attempt to claim ownership and usually have shorter-term motives.
On the other hand, squatters will typically try to claim ownership or say they have permission to be there more permanently. The difference between a trespasser and a squatter is often determined by the squatter claiming the address as their own on official documents, such as utility or phone bills.
Often, the long-term goal of squatters is to live somewhere for as long as possible without paying rent or being held accountable.
While trespassers can be removed by law enforcement and prosecuted as criminals, squatters must be handled under a different set of rules.
Why is that, when the two groups are so similar?
This is because there is such a thing as squatters’ rights, and you cannot simply throw them out of your property without ensuring their habitation rights are not violated.
Squatter’s Rights: Yes, That’s A Real Thing!
Whether they’re self-identified or recognized as such by law enforcement, squatters can stay at a property until they are formally evicted. Even though they were not given permission by the landlord to be occupying the property as they are, they must be evicted as if they were tenants in order to remove them.
If not removed, it might even be possible for squatters to claim legal possession of the real estate through something called adverse possession, which will be discussed in more detail below.
Calculating The Damage Caused By Squatters
Imagine this situation: You notice that a former tenant is overstaying their rental period or that the property is being lived in by unwanted guests. You’re confused and even tempted to let them stay there for a few weeks in the hopes they will leave on their own.
After all, what’s the big deal? Won’t it be more of a hassle to get the squatters out?
As tempting as that idea may be, landlords should never allow a squatter to remain uncontested on their property. Not only can this create a path for squatters’ rights in some states, but it will likely also damage your business and property in other serious ways that will cause you unnecessary grief.
Risk #1: You Will Lose Money
When dealing with squatters, there is no doubt that you will lose money. While squatters occupy your property, you are not able to rent out the property to make your normal rental income. You also will need to invest money to carry out an eviction.
The eviction process can be lengthy and will get more expensive for your business the longer it takes to resolve. Acting with expediency is key to limiting how much loss you have to take on while removing squatters.
Risk #2: Your Property Will Likely Be Damaged
Property damage occurs in most squatter situations. From broken windows to worn-out appliances, there is a huge range of damage that could occur.
The full scope of damage caused by squatters varies by situation, and it’s impossible to predict what those costs may be. Regardless, you will need to repair the damages before renting the unit out again. This will take time and money while also causing a lot of extra work for you or your team.
Risk #3: Valuables May Go Missing
Some damages are beyond what can easily be repaired. These things may go missing if you have any valuables at the property, such as expensive appliances or copper piping. Most items can be replaced, but this is still a big reason to act quickly when dealing with squatters.
Risk #4: Additional Bills Will Pile Up
Depending on what utilities are running at the property and whether or not those bills are being paid, it’s possible the squatters will accumulate additional debt under your property.
You will likely need to pay these bills off in the long run, adding yet another expense to the list of problems caused by squatters. While you legally cannot turn utilities off while pursuing eviction, you can check in with utility companies to find out if bills are being paid and what you can expect to owe once the eviction is complete. Doing this can help you plan for future expenses.
Risk #5: Adverse Possession
In extreme cases, the squatters might be able to claim ownership through adverse possession if you let them stay there long enough. This typically takes longer than most landlords would leave the problem unresolved, but it is still a concern to be aware of.
Adverse possession is a type of property transfer that can occur when someone who does not own a property notoriously and openly occupies it long enough for it to become theirs.
Adverse possession laws in most states require specific stipulations to be met in order for squatters to have a valid challenge to property ownership.
In some states, such as Pennsylvania, adverse possession can happen when a property is occupied this way for 21 years. Each state has its own rules and regulations about whether or not this type of property transfer is valid, so it’s important to know what applies in your area.
The longer you don’t tell the squatters to leave, the more difficult it will be to prove they have to go and prevent adverse possession from occurring.
How To Evict A Squatter
Now that you know more about squatters and the damage they can cause to your rental business, you can see how important it is to act quickly to regain control of your property.
It’s time to learn how to remove squatters, and we’re here to help you do just that.
Note: The eviction process and how squatting is defined varies by city, region, and state. Always check your local laws before proceeding with any specific course of action. In most cases, the trespassers must be claiming residency via utilities or bills coming to the home in their name to be considered squatters. Squatting is a civil matter.
1: Call The Police Immediately
When you find someone on your property, call the police. They can determine if the person is a trespasser or a squatter. If they are a trespasser, the police will consider it a criminal issue and remove them. If they are a squatter, you will need to move on to civil court.
The police will likely want to see proof that you own the house, and they also may need to spend some time talking to the squatter to determine their status.
Don’t get frustrated if law enforcement does not immediately remove the individual. As difficult as it is to wait, they must follow due process. Have patience with the process, listen to the officers carefully, and keep documentation of everything that happens.
2: Begin The Eviction Process With A Notice
If it is determined that the individual should be treated as a squatter, you’ll need to start the eviction process. The process for serving an eviction to a squatter is very similar to any other eviction process.
You will need to work through the following steps according to your state’s specific timeline and regulations:
- Send an eviction notice
- Wait the required amount of time
- If the squatter doesn’t leave, file for eviction in your local court
- Wait for the court to serve documents
- Show up in court to defend your position
- Receive a judgment
- Use the judgment to enforce your ownership via the local sheriff
Even though you don’t have a lease agreement with this person, you will still evict them. This puts a legally binding document on the record that will start to hold the squatter accountable for their actions. The eviction proceedings will give you the legal right to regain control of your property.
Serve the squatter with an eviction notice as soon as possible. Don’t delay any longer than is necessary to draw up the documents needed to send out your notice.
Be sure to follow any local requirements about the information that must be included in the eviction notice. For example, you may have to wait for a period of five days after sending the notice before moving on to the next step or you may need to send the notice by certified mail.
If the squatter leaves, you’re good to go. If not, move on to step 3.
3: File An Eviction Lawsuit
If the squatter does not leave after being served, it’s time to file a civil lawsuit for their illegal use of your property.
Check your state and local laws for details on which court you must file with and what information you’ll need to present. Prepare this documentation, as well as any other useful evidence of your case, before you attend your court hearing. You will have to attend an eviction court hearing.
The judge will determine the outcome of this issue. Due to the illegal nature of the squatter’s habitation of your property, you will likely receive a judgment allowing you to get rid of them.
4: Have The Squatter Removed
Once you win your case, you may still need to have the squatter removed if they are not removed immediately by law enforcement or they do not leave on their own.
However, once you have a final court decision after your eviction hearing, you can present this to local police to have the squatter legally removed. You may need to pay a fee, but that fee is well worth the investment compared to a squatter remaining at the property.
5: Handle Any Belongings Left Behind
When dealing with squatters, you will often be faced with abandoned property. It may be tempting to dump or sell the items immediately, but you may not be legally allowed to do so.
Research your local laws about the abandoned property and what you’re supposed to do with it. Many states will require you to keep it for a set period of time. Afterward, you may need to file a small claims court case against the squatters to have the costs of doing so reimbursed.
No matter what you do, make sure you follow the local laws when dealing with squatters. Never use force or threats, though it might be tempting to try to handle the situation yourself. Rely on the local government to help you get your property back.
Alternative Option: Offer Them Money
While most landlords prefer to stick to the eviction route when a tenant overstays their welcome and becomes a squatter, you can also take a monetary approach. Some squatters will leave if you give them a lump sum of money to do so. This can be cheaper than pursuing eviction, but it’s not an option without risks.
If you decide to try this option, make sure you write up clear contracts and consult with local landlord-tenant legal services to ensure your actions are both legal and binding.
Reminder: What You Can’t Do
While we talked a lot about how to get rid of squatters, it’s important to learn what you cannot do when faced with this tough situation.
Don’t Remove The Squatters Yourself
First, you never want to try to remove the squatters on your own. Doing this may violate their rights in some situations, and you’re putting yourself at risk for large fines or even jail time by doing so. Forcibly removing squatters is known as self-eviction and is illegal.
Plus, trying to force the squatters out on your own can be dangerous. Focus on resolving the situation through the civil legal system rather than your own brute force.
Don’t Change Property Locks
Additionally, you should not change the locks, turn off the utilities, or otherwise try to force the squatters to leave by making the property uninhabitable for them. Just as it is illegal to use these tactics to force a tenant to leave your property, it’s also illegal to use them on squatters.
Don’t Threaten Squatters
Finally, never threaten them with physical violence or attack them verbally. This can lead to a large escalation and even bigger issues for you and your business.
Preventing Squatters From The Start
Squatters most often become a problem when unreliable tenants overstay their welcome or invite others to do so. Though some individuals will try to take advantage of you, there are a number of things that you can do to prevent squatters from affecting your business.
#1: Monitor Vacant Properties
Do you have unoccupied properties in your portfolio?
Whether your properties are undergoing repairs, between tenants, or new to your business, it’s important to keep an eye on those properties. Vacant properties with unsecured entry points are common targets for squatters.
Don’t leave your business open to this type of risk. Make sure that even unoccupied properties are adequately secured, and visit the properties frequently to prevent squatting issues.
#2: Get To Know Your Neighbors
Take time to introduce yourself to individuals living next to your rental properties. Exchange contact information if possible, and let them know that you’re available if they have any issues you could help with.
While you cannot directly ask these neighbors to watch your tenants as that would be a violation of your tenants’ rights, you can make your contact information available to the neighbors. They may take it upon themselves to let you know if they notice suspicious squatter activity. Fostering this relationship is always a good idea.
#3: Choose The Right Tenants
The best way to prevent squatters from ever becoming an issue on your rental properties is to choose great tenants from the get-go.
Great tenants will not only occupy your rental for a longer period of time, but they will also pay rent on time while respecting your property.
But how do you choose great tenants? This is a problem many landlords face. They don’t know how to choose the best tenants for their properties!
When reviewing rental applications, every tenant can begin to feel familiar, and it can be difficult to differentiate great potential tenants from risky ones.
For a thorough lesson about choosing great tenants, check out this article, which includes step-by-step information on selection methods.
For now, these quick tips should help you to choose better tenants every time:
- Call references to confirm your gut feeling about a tenant
- Verify both employment and income
- Check national databases for eviction history
- Consider both credit score and background checks when reviewing tenants
- Be clear about your property rules and go over those rules with the tenant
If you find it difficult to wade through tenant selection, it might be time to hire a high-quality tenant screening service. RentPrep offers services to make the process more efficient. Making an investment to find the perfect tenant is worth it for the longer-term profit.
FAQs: Evicting Squatters
As a landlord, the process of removing an unwanted occupant can be stressful. Here are a few of the most frequently asked questions on evicting squatters from your rental properties.
How long does it take to evict a squatter?
The amount of time it takes to evict a squatter varies greatly depending on the exact situation. Eviction generally takes around 4–5 weeks to resolve in most cases. This means that you could have your property back in less than two months if you act quickly.
Why can’t you evict squatters yourself?
Forcing someone to leave your property is not legal or a good idea. By taking physical action against the squatter, they can legally defend themselves and may even use physical force against you.
Additionally, attacking someone with force makes you the aggressor. This means that a cop could and would have to arrest you until the situation is sorted out, and you could end up in legal trouble beyond your civil issues with the squatter situation.
Can a tenant become a squatter?
Yes. This is actually one of the most common ways that a squatter situation occurs.
More often than not, however, you’ll see this type of tenant referred to as a holdover tenant, and it’s not always clear where the distinction lies. Some say that anyone with a previous landlord–tenant relationship should not be considered a squatter.
Ultimately, the distinction isn’t that important because the steps you will take as a landlord to remove them are the same.
Can you evict a squatter after years?
The answer to this question depends on the state in which your real estate is located. If a squatter is living in your property for a certain number of years and is also paying the property taxes, they may be able to claim ownership of it through adverse possession. This is called adverse possession, and each state has its own rules on the exact conditions required for this to occur.
In most cases, you will still be the one paying property taxes. If, for some reason, you have not been paying them and the squatter has been, you need to act quickly to ensure that you do not lose your property.
What is adverse possession law?
Adverse possession laws, sometimes referred to as squatters’ rights, are the laws that enable squatters to be treated the same as other homeowners if they meet certain conditions.
In the United States, all of the following conditions must be met for adverse possession law to kick in:
- The individual must openly live at the property with no attempt at concealment of their habitation.
- The squatter must live alone, not sharing the property with others.
- The squattermust actively control the property. This includes paying the bills and property taxes as well as performing landscaping and other tasks.
- The squatter must continuously occupy the property without interruption or removal for the required period of time.
- The occupation of the property must be intentional and hostile to the true ownership rights of the property.
If all of these conditions are met, the squatter may be able to challenge the owner for the legal right to occupy the property. The exact process for this type of procedure varies by state.
How long are squatters’ rights?
Just like all parts of landlord-tenant law, the amount of time it takes for squatters’ rights to kick in varies by state. Each state has its own rules about the conditions that need to be met and the length of time required for a squatter to have a legal claim on a property.
Squatters’ rights are a part of nearly every state’s laws. How these laws are enforced varies from state to state, however.
Many states’ laws require more than 20 years to pass before a squatter can try to claim legal ownership of a property. The exact years required vary; these states include:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
Other states require between 10 and 18 years for squatters’ rights to take effect:
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- Washington D.C.
- West Virginia
Finally, some states only require between five and seven years to pass before squatters’ rights may be evoked:
Remember that each state has its own stipulations for squatters’ rights to take effect beyond the time requirement, from paying property taxes to maintaining the property’s condition. Reviewing your state’s rules is essential for enhancing your landlord toolbox.
What is the shortest time for squatters’ rights?
The states with the shortest squatters’ rights laws require only five years of adverse possession to make a claim of ownership. The exact rules in each state vary, but it is possible for properties to be adversely possessed in this short amount of time if you aren’t able to regain control.
In Florida, for example, squatters who live openly, continuously, and notoriously in an abandoned or unoccupied property can file for legal occupation after seven years. California only requires five years to pass before this claim can be made.
Are there varying laws about how to evict squatters?
Because landlord–tenant and similar laws are decided at the state and not the federal level, there are differences in how eviction needs to be handled. Even when facing squatters, things may vary from state to state.
That’s why it is important to do some research about the rules in your state before you’re faced with a squatter situation. With that information, you’ll be more prepared to handle anything that comes your way.
What do I do first if squatters move in?
The first thing you should do when you find there are people occupying your property unlawfully is to call the police, who will hopefully be able to find and remove the trespassers without issue.
If you catch them fast enough, you might be able to remove them before they’re able to start having bills in their name sent to the address and officially become squatters.
Can you turn off utilities on a squatter?
If an individual is living in the property and has been identified as a squatter, you cannot knowingly turn utilities off. There may be some situations where this is permissible, but it’s very complicated and depends largely on local landlord-tenant laws.
For that reason, it is never advised to intentionally turn off utilities in an attempt to force someone to leave the property. This action is viewed as a self-help eviction attempt, and it will not be viewed positively in court if you need to have an eviction hearing.
If you’re facing large bills due to squatters, make sure to include these costs in your case when filing for eviction to regain some of that loss. Calculate how much an eviction is likely to cose you using our eviction calculator.
Can police remove squatters?
In most situations, police will only remove trespassers; they will not remove squatters unless the proper civil court proceedings have taken place.
Landlords who have a writ of possession judgment in their favor will be able to pay law enforcement to help them remove evicted squatters.
Can you sue squatters?
Once the squatter has been removed from your property, you might be wondering how to recoup the loss from the court fees, damages, and other expenses and lost income resulting from their actions.
In many states, you might be able to sue the squatter in small claims court to try to win back some of the money. However, keep in mind that tracking down the squatter to collect is often difficult and costly. If you can afford to, it’s often best to take the loss and move on instead.
Be Patient With The Process
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: You need to be patient when removing squatters.
If you’re fighting with squatters on your property and have to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit to get rid of them, it’s going to take time. You will need to follow the steps of the system to reclaim your property without issue:
- Write up an eviction notice for squatters and serve it rapidly.
- Do not try to remove the squatters yourself.
- File reports with local courts and law enforcement.
- Have patience with the process.
The only way to deal with squatters is to do so legally. This can feel frustrating, but hold on to your confidence that your legal right to the property will prevail. Follow the steps in today’s guide carefully and you’ll have your property back as soon as possible.