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Squatter's Rights

California Squatter’s Rights

December 13, 2023

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Squatters In California

Squatters – those mysterious figures who move into abandoned or vacant properties – have long been a subject of curiosity and confusion. Many people wonder—and fear—how squatters sometimes end up with legal rights to the property they’ve occupied.  

Squatters’ rights exist in various forms across the United States, including California. The requirements for claiming these rights vary from state to state, making it essential to understand the specific laws in your area. The squatter’s rights California offers are different than those in other states. 

While you can feel comforted that it is notoriously difficult for a squatter to fulfill all the requirements necessary to make a successful legal claim to your property, it never hurts to be prepared. In this article, we’ll cover California squatters rights and explain how adverse possession works in this state. 

Overview 

  • Minimum Occupation Required: 5 consecutive years + cultivation/improvement 
  • Property Taxes Required? Yes 
  • Color of Title Required? No 

Who Are Squatters? 

A squatter is someone who occupies a property without legal ownership or permission from the property owner. They often move into vacant, abandoned, or neglected properties. Squatters could squat temporarily (e.g., for a few weeks) or for years at a time.  

While the term “squatter” probably summons a certain image in your mind, it’s important to note that not all squatters have nefarious intentions. A squatter could be someone who thought they legally owned a property that has been passed down to their family over many generations, only to find out years later that the title officially belongs to someone else. 

Who Isn’t a Squatter? 

Not everyone who occupies or enters a property without permission is a squatter. For instance, tenants with expired leases are not squatters. Rather, they are “holdover tenants,” or previous tenants who no longer have the right to live in the property. Likewise, trespassers are also not squatters. Criminal trespassers are people who enter onto your private property but do not live there, while squatters actually occupy and live on the vacant property. 

What Are Squatter’s Rights/Adverse Possession? 

Squatter’s rights, also known as adverse possession, refer to the general legal principles that allow squatters to gain ownership of a property through a long period of possession, even without the owner’s permission. While squatter’s rights might seem antiquated today, the principles of adverse possession were established to reward the productive use of land and discourage neglect of properties.  

There is no federal law governing squatter’s rights, but there are legal precedents for them in each state and laws governing some of the requirements to claim adverse possession. Squatter’s rights in California are governed by the California state law code. 

California Squatters Rights 

To make a successful claim for adverse possession in California, a squatter must meet the following requirements: 

  • Occupy the property for at least five consecutive years 
  • Cultivate or improve the land or property 
  • Pay all state, county, or municipal taxes throughout their occupation (CCP § 318, 325). 

Often, California squatters will be required to provide evidence that they have cultivated or improved the land. This includes cultivating in an agricultural sense as well as building onto or making improvements to the property itself. 

Squatters in California must also meet five general requirements:

  1. Hostile/Adverse—The squatter must not have a valid lease or rental agreement with the owner.  
  1. Actual—The squatter must have actively lived in the property for a certain length of time.  
  1. Open and notorious—The squatter’s possession of the property is open and obvious to neighbors or anyone else. They aren’t living there “in secret” or trying to hide their presence.  
  1. Exclusive—The squatter does not share possession of the property with anyone else. They prevent others from living there like an owner would.  
  1. Continuous—The squatter must hold continuous and uninterrupted possession of the property (a squatter in California must do so for five consecutive years). 

Once a squatter meets these requirements and makes a successful claim for adverse possession California law states they can legally have ownership of the property. They are no longer considered a trespasser and may remain on the property via squatters rights in California. 

How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession in California? 

If a squatter has fulfilled both the squatters rights California requirements and the general squatter’s rights principles above, they can file a claim for adverse possession or bring an action to “quiet title.” Quiet title is the legal action to claim the right of possession and ownership of a particular property. 

Note, however, that just because a squatter files a claim, this does not mean they will be successful. There are many obstacles to winning an adverse possession case—for instance, squatters in California would need to: 

  • Gather ample evidence for their claim (e.g., mail addressed to the property in their name, property tax receipts, evidence that they’ve “beautified” the property, etc.) 
  • File a quiet title complaint with the court 
  • Attend a hearing with you in front of a judge, where they’ll present their case for adverse possession  
  • Successfully convince a judge that they have fulfilled all the state requirements for adverse possession 
  • Receive a judgment for adverse possession to perfect the title 

As you can see, a squatter has an enormous burden of proof when claiming ownership of your property. It is a highly complex process that often requires the squatter to hire an attorney and to have lived in your property for many years. In all likelihood, a squatter situation you’re involved in won’t escalate to a successful action to quiet title. In creating these squatting laws California is attempting to ensure that whoever occupies the property has a legal reason and right to be there. 

How to Remove a Squatter in California 

In California, as in almost all other states, removing a squatter necessitates the full eviction process. Treating the squatter like any other tenant ensures that any adverse possession claim they file is invalid. If you are a California property owner and you find out that a squatter is living in your property, you need to provide proper notice, file a formal eviction complaint in court, and attend (or get your attorney to attend) a hearing to lawfully remove the squatter.  

Here is an overview of the eviction process for squatters in California: 

  1. Serve the squatter a formal eviction notice. The possible eviction notices in California are: 
    • A three-day pay or quit notice (for nonpayment) 
    • A three-day cure or quit notice (for lease violations) 
    • A three-day unconditional notice to quit (for illegal activity) 
  1. If the squatter refuses to leave after the allotted notice period, the owner must file a complaint for unlawful detainer in California Superior Court. 
  1. The court will issue a summons to court, which must be served to the squatter by the sheriff of another authorized process server. 
  1. The squatter has five days to file an answer with the court or dispute the case. If they don’t, the owner may be able to request an immediate order of possession. 
  1. If the squatter does file an answer, a hearing will be scheduled within 20 days. 
  1. If the squatter does not have a valid claim to adverse possession of the property, the judge will rule in the owner’s favor. This judgement can be presented to the local sheriff, who will serve the squatter a Writ of Execution.  
  1. The squatter will have five days to move out after the writ is posted. If they do not move out within this time frame, they will be forcibly removed.  

How to Prevent Squatters from Living in Your Vacant California Property 

Here are a few practical tips to prevent squatters from moving into your vacant property: 

  • Regularly inspect your property. 
  • Make your property appear inhabited during vacancy periods. 
  • Install adequate lighting and security systems to deter unauthorized entry. 
  • Secure all doors, windows, and access points with sturdy locks and barriers. 
  • Post “No Trespassing” signs on the property. 
  • Encourage neighbors to report any suspicious activity. 
  • Consider hiring a property management company to oversee and maintain the property. 
  • If feasible, keep the property in use, even if temporarily, to discourage squatting. 
  • Develop a good relationship with local law enforcement and notify them of the property’s vacancy to increase patrols and response to trespassing. 

Conclusion 

Knowledge is indeed power when it comes to understanding the laws that regulate property possession and ownership. However, it’s worth noting that when claiming adverse possession California laws are unlikely to come into play. Property neglect to the extent that a squatter could go unnoticed for the required period is rare, emphasizing the importance of vigilance and preventative measures in protecting property rights. If you’re a landlord who looks after your property and abides by squatting laws California will likely rule in your favor in an adverse possession case. 

Innago does not provide legal advice. The content and materials provided in this article are for general informational purposes only and may not be the most up-to-date information. 

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