Updated November 2021
While squatters taking over your property might seem like something out of an old Western movie, it’s a very real thing that could happen to you or any other landlord. These days, landlords need to learn how to evict a squatter more than ever before.
Squatters in modern times are less likely to be outlaws trying to steal your property from you; they’re more likely to be disgruntled tenants or their friends who don’t want to pay to live on your property. That’s right: The tenants you rent to can become squatters!
Though this situation is rare, that makes it even more difficult for landlords to deal with. Most landlords wouldn’t know where to begin if they had a squatter situation, and that knowledge gap can lead to huge losses of time, money, and even property.
Would you know how to serve an official eviction notice or whom to call to ensure the squatters are legally removed?
This is information that you as a landlord need to know to legally protect your property, without getting into accidental trouble, and our short guide can help you learn about how to get rid of squatters.
A Table Of Contents For Evicting A Squatter
How to remove squatters is not immediately apparent to many landlords. If they’re not tenants or were formerly your tenants, what type of steps do you need to take to regain control of your property? In today’s guide, learn just that:
- What Is A Squatter?
- 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 Squatters Be Evicted Yourself?
- Can A Tenant Become A Squatter?
- Can You Evict A Squatter After Years?
- 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?
Let’s start by defining what a squatter is.
Unfortunately, there is no single definition because squatters can arise in a few different ways, and each is unique.
Squatters are typically defined as individuals who are occupying uninhabited 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 of a property 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
More confusion often comes about when trying to clarify whether squatters and trespassers are the same or if there are differences between these two categories of individuals.
Trespassers vs. Squatters
While the definitions of these two terms can seem very similar, there is a legal difference between a squatter and a trespasser. Identifying the exact difference, however, can be difficult.
In both situations, the individual in question is illegally inside a rental property that they do not have permission to be in.
However, trespassing is usually a short-term situation in which the individual is not trying to stay there. On the other hand, squatters will typically try to claim ownership or say they have permission to be there.
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 for this. Trespassers do not attempt to claim ownership, and they usually have shorter-term motives.
While trespassers can be removed by police and prosecuted under the law 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 squatter’s rights, and you cannot simply throw them out of your property.
Squatter’s Rights: Yes, That’s A Real Thing!
Whether they are 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.
The Damage Caused By Squatters
When a landlord first notices that a former tenant is overstaying their rental period or that their property is being lived in by unwanted guests, it may be confusing and even tempting to let them stay there for a few weeks in the hopes they will leave on their own.
As tempting as that idea may be, though, landlords should never allow a squatter to remain uncontested on their property. In many states, this is what can ultimately lead the squatter to have squatter’s rights to your property.
If these rights come to fruition, evicting them will be even more difficult, so it’s important to know how to remove squatters efficiently.
Remember that squatters do more than just occupy your property, and you should know how to get rid of squatters to protect your business. These unwanted visitors can cause a lot of other grief and damage to your business.
You Will Lose Money
When dealing with squatters, there is no doubt that you will lose money. Not only are you 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.
Your Property Will Likely Be Damaged
In most squatter situations, property damage occurs. From broken windows to worn-out appliances, there is a huge range of damage that could occur.
Once you regain possession of your property, 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.
Valuables May Go Missing
Some damages are beyond what can easily be repaired. If you have any valuables at the property, such as expensive appliances or copper piping, these things may go missing. Most items can be replaced, but this is still a big reason to act quickly when dealing with squatters.
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 that the squatters will accumulate additional debt under your property.
These bills will likely need to be paid off by you in the long run, adding yet another expense to the list of problems caused by squatters.
They Might Be Able To Stay
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.
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.
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 is 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 become frustrated if they do not immediately remove the individual. As difficult as it is to see, they must follow due process.
2: Serve An Eviction Notice
If it is determined that the individual should be treated as a squatter, you will need to start the eviction process. The process for serving an eviction to a squatter is very similar to any other eviction process.
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.
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 A 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 need to file with and what type of information you will need to present. You will have to attend an eviction court hearing.
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 in comparison to keeping a squatter at the property.
5: Handle Any Belongings Left Behind
When dealing with squatters, you will often be faced with left-behind property. While it may be tempting to immediately dump or sell the items, you may not be legally allowed to do so.
Research your local laws about the abandoned property and what you are 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, even though it might be tempting to try to handle the situation yourself. Rely on the local government to help you get your property back.
Reminder: What You Can’t Do
While we talked a lot about how you can go about evicting squatters, it’s important to remember what you cannot do when faced with this tough situation.
Don’t Remove Squatter Yourself
First, you never want to try to remove the squatters yourself. Doing this may be a violation of their rights in some situations, and you are putting yourself at risk for large fines or even jail time by doing so.
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.
Don’t Threaten Squatter
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.
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?
Choosing Great Tenants
This is a problem that 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 how to choose 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 the waters of tenant selection, it might be time to hire a high-quality tenant screening service to make the process more efficient. Putting in additional money to find the perfect tenant is worth it for the long-term profit improvement you will see at your property.
FAQs: Evicting Squatters
As a landlord, the process of removing an unwanted tenant 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 cases generally take 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 lethal 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 are the same.
Can You Evict A Squatter After Years?
The answer to this question depends on the state that your real estate is located in. 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. Each state has its own rules on the exact conditions required for this.
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.
Are There Varyings Laws About How To Evict Squatters?
Because landlord–tenant and similar laws are decided at the state level 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 is why it is important to do some research about the rules in your state before you are faced with a squatter situation. With that information, you’ll be more prepared to handle anything that comes your way.
What To 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 are 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 on them. There may be some situations where this is permissible, but it is 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 are 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.
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 lost income due to 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 is often best to take the loss and move on instead.
Be Patient With The Process
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. If you are fighting with squatters on your property and have to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit to get rid of them, it is likely going to be a lengthy process to see them removed.
Still, you need to stick with the system:
- 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 illegal squatters is legally, and if you follow these steps, you’ll have your property back as soon as possible.