Squatters' Rights Law

Updated May 23, 2024
8 min read
Squatters' Rights Law: scales, book, stamp, papers, damaged house

Property, for commercial and personal use, is a great investment. It can help you generate an income or simply cut down on your living costs once your mortgage is paid off. After spending lots of money on your dream home, it is normal to want to protect it. 

People invest in expensive security systems to keep their homes safe. Unfortunately, such measures are most effective when a person is living in or checking up on the property regularly. An empty house can become a playground for trespassers and squatters.

To protect your property, you must familiarize yourself with squatters’ rights. In this guide, we will discuss the differences between squatters and trespassers, their rights and how you can protect yourself from them.

What Is a Squatter?

Squatters are also known as adverse possessors. They live on property that they have no legal claim over. Usually, squatters come to occupy a house nobody lives in without reason to believe they’re allowed to be there. Sometimes people can end up in that situation because of a fraudulent rental agreement.

Squatters’ rights can be quite complex, so it’s not always easy to evict a squatter, even though they have no legal right to your property. According to the law for squatters’ rights, a procedure needs to occur if you want a squatter to vacate your property.

Insight

Squatters can not only occupy residences but also move into any commercial property, for example, abandoned office buildings, schools, hotels, hospitals, etc.

What Are Squatters’ Rights?

Squatters’ rights, or adverse possession, are a set of legalities designed when homesteading was popular. The government wrote the Homestead Act of 1862, specifying rights to provide legal support for pioneers who moved onto land they perceived as vacant, built a home, and started raising livestock or growing crops. This was a way for pioneers to expand the land under the U.S. government at the time.

Even though times have changed, and squatters’ rights laws may no longer be relevant, this legislation remains on the books. The idea of moving onto vacant land or an empty home and making it your own still exists, meaning the laws still protect squatters’ rights.

The critical point you should remember about squatters’ rights is that they are eligible to stay on your property unless you have reported them within a specific period. In New York, for example, the law is on their side if they’ve been occupying your property for ten years or more. They have the legal right to stay on your property if they pay back taxes, if any, and other necessary fees for the property in your absence. 

The relations between squatters and property owners are different from a landlord/owner and a renter. Renting a house or apartment always requires documentation, for example, a basic lease agreement. Squatters act independently and may pretend to have legal documents that “confirm” their legal occupation of a specific place or land. Still, these documents certainly do not ensure law enforcement is on their side.

Nevertheless, you cannot remove squatters without a formal eviction notice and the police. You cannot use violence against adverse possessors, either. Otherwise, they can file a lawsuit against you. A court may not consider your statements that you were protecting your property valid.

Why Do Squatters Have Rights?

Since living in the U.S. can cost a fortune, seeking abandoned homes is much more affordable. Squatters are not necessarily homeless people; they can be law-abiding citizens with a decent annual income that enables them to pay taxes and other essential fees for the property.

Plus, if squatters do not damage anything in your home or do not steal your assets, they cannot necessarily be arrested for living on your property. Unless you send a letter of eviction to the unwanted guests, their squatters’ rights to claim to own your property will remain. 

Remember that landlord-tenancy regulations do not apply to squatters’ rights law. To learn more about landlord-tenancy relations, read about landlord-tenant dispute resolution.

Squatting vs. Trespassing

Trespassing is a criminal offense, and you can charge someone with trespassing. Squatting, however, is regarded as a civil matter, and squatters’ rights law protects squatters. The law can still arrest people squatting if they never paid utility bills, ignored the landlord’s eviction notices, or constituted a nuisance.

The most significant difference in legal terms is that a trespasser violates your property to gain access, so they break in. But a squatter uses an unlocked door, an open, sliding glass window, or an already broken window to get in.

Which States Have Squatters’ Rights?

All states have squatters’ rights, but they vary regarding how long someone has to live on the property and what qualifies. The average period of occupying land or home uninterruptedly to be protected by squatters’ rights law ranges from five to 30 years.

In Alabama, squatters can take possession if they pay taxes for ten years, according to Title 6, Chapter 5, Section 200 of the Code of Alabama. But in Alaska, a squatter can get the property with a deed if they live there for seven years and paid taxes for ten years.

Below see the table of other US states and the period when squatters become legally protected after ocuupying the property.

In Arizona, a squatter must have a deed and pay property taxes for three or more years. If the land is part of a city lot, they must have a deed and pay for it for five years. If a neighbor accidentally or intentionally builds on nearby property, if no owner objects, the neighbor gets the land after two years.

California requires tax payment on land for only five years to gain adverse possession and squatters’ rights. But in Colorado, squatters can take possession of land if they have a deed, have paid property taxes for seven years, or have lived there for 18 years.

Below see the table of other US states and the period when squatters become legally protected after occupying the property.

Squatters' Rights
5 years
  • California
  • Montana
  • Texas
Squatters' Rights
7 years
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
Squatters' Rights
10 years
  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming
Squatters' Rights
15 years
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Wisconsin
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Louisiana
  • New Jersey

States that require the squatter to live on the property for 18 years or longer include ––

  • Colorado;
  • Delaware;
  • Georgia;
  • Hawaii;
  • Idaho;
  • Illinois;
  • Maine;
  • Maryland;
  • Massachusetts;
  • North Carolina;
  • North Dakota;
  • South Dakota;
  • Wisconsin;
  • Ohio;
  • Pennsylvania;
  • Louisiana;
  • New Jersey.

When Do Squatters’ Rights Apply?

A person can gain possession of your property, but only under certain circumstances. The law for squatters’ rights can protect the person only if the following is fulfilled:

  • They’re squatting on personal property;

  • They’re occupying only that property uninterruptedly for a period of time;

  • The property has been occupied for a minimum period dictated by the state, starting at five years in California and Montana; 

  • A minimum amount of time has passed without the owner of the property trying to evict the squatter.

If all the statements above apply, the person can be protected by squatters’ rights law. It doesn’t matter if the squatter came to occupy the property intentionally or accidentally. If your neighbor builds a fence that occupies a part of your land and you don’t notice or object, they may become the lawful owner of that land in 5 to 30 years.

Steps to Protect Your Property From Squatters

You have the right to evict squatters from your property as a property owner. You can call the police. If adverse possessors refuse to leave and start claiming squatters’ rights upfront, you can evict them. The law for squatters’ rights states that there is a time during which you must start the eviction process by sending an eviction notice. This timeframe is called the statutory period.

Considering the complexity of the process required to remove squatters and deprive them of squatters’ rights, you should protect your property from them ahead of time. Consider these tips for preventing a squatters’ invasion.

No Trespassing

Property owners can post “no trespassing” signs to avoid adverse possession. They will indicate the owners did not abandon the property but frequently visit it.

Secure Perimeter

As the rightful owner of any land owned, you should safeguard the perimeter of your real estate. You don’t want to deal with the law for squatters’ rights, a false lease agreement where a squatter allegedly made rent payments or a hostile claim where they believe they have legal possession. Equip your perimeter with lights, alarms that make noise, and individual alarms on your windows. If you have fences, reinforce them and the locks.

Alarms

Consider installing alarms, especially those with cameras that can send real-time information to your smartphone. You can view what is happening on your property, take immediate action, or call the police and provide them with surveillance evidence. Squatters’ rights strengthen with time, so intervene while you still can.

Secure Windows and Doors

Be sure to secure all windows and doors with steel enforcement. The difference between squatting and trespassing is that squatters can enter through a broken window or unlocked door and be entitled to squatters’ rights. If you don’t want your property to be a shelter for strangers, take care of its security, and no one will come in without your permission.

Visits

Visit your property regularly. The more often you or someone else visits your home, the sooner you can catch broken windows or doors that can grant unwanted visitors squatters’ rights.

How to Evict a Squatter?

If you find out that squatters have been living on your property for some time, here are the main steps you should take.

  1. Call the police.
    Instead of acting alone and using violence, ask the police to intervene. If squatters have broken your property or anything in it, it is solid evidence for the police to file an official report. If you tried to negotiate with adverse possessors and failed, share that with the police.

  2. Provide a formal eviction notice.
    Create an eviction notice and send it to the squatters. You can find an attorney on Lawrina and ask them to help you prepare this document and ensure its legality.

  3. File a lawsuit.
    If the squatters refuse to leave after receiving an eviction notice, it is time to file a lawsuit. Get in touch with a lawyer that specializes in eviction lawsuits. After the court rules in your favor, a third party, such as your local sheriff or police officer, will remove the squatters.

  4. Remove their possessions.
    If the squatters have left any of their belongings in your house, remove them. You may need to provide a written notice. You will find out what to do in court or through your lawyer.

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Do Squatters Pay Property Taxes?

Depending on the state, squatters should pay property taxes in addition to other required property fees. Suppose adverse possessors offer financing for the home they occupy and pay all the amounts on time. In that case, they can count on obtaining the property ownership after a specific period that varies across the U.S.

Final Remarks

Squatters can be annoying, especially when you realize they have lived at your place for years and there is a law for squatters rights that works in their favor. However, if you do not use your place anymore and have not sold it yet, you could provide it for those who seek shelter and legal protection. To make it happen and prevent dealing with squatters’ rights, you can try to negotiate with adverse possessors and decide for yourself – let other people occupy your property or keep it for your needs.

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Please note that Lawrina does not provide any legal services. The information on Lawrina’s Site and its downloadable content, including legal articles and templates, shall not be considered legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete, and up-to-date. If you require legal advice on your issue, we recommend you contact a qualified attorney licensed in your state. You personally assume full responsibility for any consequences, damages, and costs associated with your use of any content of Lawrina Services available on Lawrina’s Site. 

By using Lawrina’s Site you agree with mentioned above and give your irrevocable consent to comply with and to be bound by the provisions of Lawrina Service terms. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Do squatters really have rights?

Yes, squatters’ rights are a real thing you might have to deal with at some point in your life! Familiarizing yourself with squatters’ rights law will help you protect your property from squatters.

Can squatters’ rights be blocked?

Yes. You can do so by preventing squatters from entering your house by ensuring there is no legal passage into it. Additionally, the squatters’ rights law does not protect trespassers. If you can prove you’re dealing with a trespasser, squatters’ rights do not apply.

Is a squatter a trespasser?

No, squatters and trespassers are different. Squatters reside in one place long enough to claim legal ownership of the property, while trespassers only stay for a short time. The latter can receive criminal charges, while the former turns it into a civil matter. Plus, the law for squatters’ rights doesn’t apply to trespassers.

What does the law say about squatters’ rights?

Law for squatters’ rights differs by state. Overall, a squatter can claim legal ownership of the property and be protected by squatters’ rights if they have resided in a property and not been evicted for a certain number of years.