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Squatter’s Rights & Adverse Possession: What You Need To Know

“Squatter’s rights” is a term used to describe the rights of people who have taken physical possession of a property they do not own. These same people, known as squatters, do not have the express permission of the property’s owner(s), but may still be awarded benefits under the law. Individuals who squat on property that is not theirs may eventually be allowed to make a legal claim on that property.

Squatter’s rights covers a variety of different scenarios. Precise legal benefits and claims will differ according to the state where a property is located.


Squatting Defined

To settle on land without an owner’s permission has been known as squatting since the 1700s. Since the 1800s, it has been used to describe otherwise homeless people who squat in vacant structures. In many instances, squatting has become a way of acquiring legal title to land and buildings long considered to be abandoned. Today, the legal term for taking ownership by squatting is known as “adverse possession.”


How Adverse Possession Works

At first glance, squatting on someone else’s real estate in an attempting to gain ownership sounds like outright theft or, at the very least, criminal trespassing. Courts, however, take this matter seriously and deem it to be perfectly legal under certain circumstances.

Whenever a squatter makes a claim on a building or land, the courts will look for several identifying markers before determining if a claim is legitimate. A mnemonic useful in remembering these markers is CHOATE as each letter describes a way courts may determine a squatter’s rights to the real estate in question:

  • Continuous – Has the squatter continuously resided on the property for a length of time?
  • Hostile – Has the owner of the property consented to the squatter living there? If consent has not been given, a squatter’s continued stay is automatically deemed to be a hostile act.
  • Open – Has the squatter openly lived on the property in full view of others who could have made the owner aware of the squatter’s presence?
  • Actual – Does the squatter have physical possession of the property? Have they treated it as their own perhaps by making improvements on the property or paying taxes on it?
  • Time – Has the squatter maintained possession of the property for the amount of time required by the state the property is in to claim it?
  • Exclusive – Has the squatter had exclusive possession of the property or have others also been squatting independent of the one who is requesting legal title to the property?

It is worth noting that states have different timelines for a squatter seeking adverse possession. For example, in California a person must have continuously possessed a property and paid taxes on it for a period of five years before a claim to the property can be made. In Idaho, the considerable time frame is 20 years and taxes must also have been paid within that time.

Courts do not always require one person to continuously possess a property either. In some instances, people may take turns possessing the property as long as they agree with one another that only one person will make the claim when the time to do so is allowed. This process is called tacking and courts generally recognize it as legal.

When a court finds all these markers to be in place a deed to the property may be granted via adverse possession.


Can a Squatter’s Rights Be Blocked?

Yes, a property owner can protect against squatters in a number of ways. These include:

  • Signage – Gates, locked doors and windows, and “no trespassing” signs should be posted at all entrances of an unoccupied property. While this isn’t a guarantee that people will not still trespass, it is an important first step in keeping would-be squatters out. In some states, however, trespassers who ignore such signage may still be awarded adverse possession of a property.
  • Report trespassers – Property owners can further deter possible squatters by not hesitating to call the police to have trespassers removed. Typically, contact with law enforcement is enough to deter squatters from returning. At the very least, should an owner have to go to court to block a squatter’s rights, there is evidence to show an effort has already been made to keep them out.
  • Seek the help of an attorney – Savvy squatters know the law and will do their best to take advantage of it. When property owners encounter people like this, courts may have to intervene to have the person removed from the property. An attorney experienced in squatter’s rights and adverse possession cases can help. Especially if you need to file lawsuits or obtain court orders to have the trespasser permanently evicted.
  • Give squatters permission – While this may appear to defeat the purpose of preventing squatters from taking property, the opposite is true. Written permission to dwell on a property or – better – a rental agreement with a squatter establishes the owner as still being in control of a property. Renters and others cannot claim squatter’s rights or take adverse possession of a property that an owner is still actively controlling and who consents to the presence of people on the property.

The owners of unused property should secure that property against possible squatters. This is particularly sound advice for those who do not live in the same state as their property and who don’t have a relationship with people who may notify them of a possible squatter. Websites, articles, and forums that teach squatting explain that laws relating to adverse possession abound. It behooves property owners everywhere to be aware of this and secure unoccupied properties just in case.


Neighborly Squatters

Not all cases of squatter’s rights involve people trying to take control of an entire property. Oftentimes courts will have to sort disagreements over property lines which are not clear to the naked eye. Some may not realize that a neighbor’s driveway, fencing, or other structure has crossed property lines – though neighbors who have known one another for years may not care.

Problems arise when a new owner purchases a properties and realizes that their neighbor has crossed a boundary and is possessing a portion of their property. Sometimes this will result in the tearing down of structures found to be encroaching on another’s property. In many cases, however, property lines are redrawn to reflect a new understanding of land boundaries between both owners.


A Squatting Scam

Not all squatters are scam artists, but most are. Some simply see an opportunity in abandoned homes and, in many instances, take care of properties that would otherwise deteriorate and become eyesores.

However, property owners should be aware of a common scam used by squatters who are not necessarily focused on taking ownership of a property. But they take up residence in vacant homes just the same. By doing so, owners are forced to legally evict these surprise tenants – a process that can take months.

Basically, the scam starts with a person breaking into a vacant home, changing the existing door locks and then advertising the home for rent. Upon finding a renter, a scam artist drafts a phony rental agreement and gives the new tenant keys to a home they are now free to move into. Once the owner discovers a tenant on the premises, a legal eviction must take place before the tenant can be lawfully removed from the dwelling.

Often, the scam artist and the tenant are in cahoots with one another, but this isn’t always the case. Opportunistic scammers will prey on innocent renters and take large sums of money from them in exchange for keys to a home they technically don’t have the legal right to rent. After doling cash out for a new rental – and the expenses associated with moving – scammed tenants may suffer considerable financial hardship after being evicted and forced to move again.


Further Reading and Information

Should you want to read more about squatter’s rights or adverse possession, please visit our article archives. Contact a qualified attorney experienced squatter’s rights and similar civil cases if you have specific questions about squatting or about acquiring property through adverse possession. To find an affordable attorney in your area, you are welcome to use our directory of low-cost legal services now.

Should you want to read more about squatter’s rights or adverse possession, please visit our article archives. Contact a qualified attorney experienced squatter’s rights and similar civil cases if you have specific questions about squatting or about acquiring property through adverse possession. To find an affordable attorney in your area, you are welcome to use our directory of low-cost legal services now.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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