Pennsylvania Squatter’s Rights
January 2, 2024
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Squatters In Pennsylvania
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 title to the property they’ve occupied.
Squatters’ rights exist in various forms across the United States, including Pennsylvania. The requirements for claiming these rights vary from state to state, making it essential to understand the specific laws in your area. The squatters rights Pennsylvania provides for making an adverse possession claim differ from those provided 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 Pennsylvania squatters rights and explain how adverse possession works in this state.
- Minimum Occupation Required: 21 consecutive years
- Property Taxes Required? No
- 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 in 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 and legal title 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. While squatter’s rights might seem antiquated today, the adverse possession incentivizes property owners to use the land and discourages 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.
Pennsylvania Squatters Rights
To make a successful adverse possession claim for squatters rights in Pennsylvania, a squatter must meet the following requirements:
- Occupy the property for at least 21 consecutive years (42 PS § 5530).
This statutory period of 21 years’ occupation must be fulfilled before a squatter can file a claim to begin an adverse possession action.
In some states, squatters are also required to pay property taxes or have what’s called “color of title” before making a valid adverse possession claim. This is not the case in Pennsylvania’s adverse possession laws—squatters only need to fulfill the 21-year occupation requirement, and they can effectively gain color of title through the adverse possession claims process.
Having evidence of color of title or property tax payments does not decrease the 21-year occupation requirement. However, if a squatter were to pay property taxes, it may strengthen their legal case and help convince Pennsylvania courts that they should have the right to possession and ability gain legal possession after 21 years.
Squatters must also meet five general requirements according to adverse possession law:
- Hostile/Adverse Possession—The squatter must not have a valid lease or rental agreement with the owner.
- Actual Possession—The squatter must have actively lived in the property (actual possession) for a certain length of time.
- Open and Notorious Possession—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.
- Exclusive Possession—The squatter does not share possession of the property with anyone else. They prevent others from living there like property owners would.
- Continuous Possession—The squatter must hold continuous and uninterrupted possession of the property (for the 21-year statutory period in Pennsylvania).
How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession/ Squatters Rights in Pennsylvania?
If a squatter has fulfilled both the requirements for adverse possession in Pennsylvania 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 an adverse possession claim, this does not mean they will be successful. There are many obstacles to winning an adverse possession case—for instance, the adverse possessor would need to:
- Gather clear and convincing evidence for their claim of actual possession (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 following all adverse possession laws
- Attend a hearing with the property owner 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 in Pennsylvania 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 with actual possession. In all likelihood, an adverse possession dispute you’re involved in won’t escalate to a successful action to quiet title.
How to Remove a Squatter in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, 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 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 Pennsylvania eviction process for squatters:
- The owner must send a formal eviction notice, as per Pennsylvania eviction laws. In Pennsylvania, the possible eviction notices are:
- A ten-day notice to pay or quit (for nonpayment)
- A 15- or 30-day notice to cure or quit (for lease violations, depending on whether the tenancy is less than or more than one year, respectively)
- A ten-day unconditional notice to quit (for engaging in illegal drug activity)
- After the notice period has expired, the owner must file a complaint of forcible detainer with the Pennsylvania Justice of the Peace Court.
- The court will issue a summons to court, which must be served to the squatter by the sheriff of another authorized process server.
- The owner and adverse possessor must attend a hearing to present evidence of lawful ownership of the property to the judge.
- Upon confirming ownership, the judge will issue a writ of restitution instructing the squatter to move out within eleven days.
- If the squatter does not move out, the sheriff will return to forcibly remove them and return possession to the actual owner.
Remember that police officers cannot remove squatters—you must call the sheriff, who has the appropriate jurisdiction to remove the squatter.
How to Prevent Squatters from Living in Your Vacant Pennsylvania 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.
- Review all Pennsylvania’s adverse possession laws and be aware of any changes to the legislation.
Knowledge is indeed power when it comes to understanding the laws that regulate property possession and ownership. However, it’s worth noting that adverse possession laws are unlikely to come into play in most cases. 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.
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.