Rental Management

Serial Squatters: How to Avoid and Remove Them

August 23, 2023

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A Guide To Serial Squatters

You may have heard of squatters, but do you know what a serial squatter is? 

Serial squatters are an increasing concern among landlords and property owners, especially as COVID-era eviction moratoriums have offered more protections to tenants and squatters in the past several years. Although squatters can very rarely have a valid claim to a vacant property, serial squatters take advantage of landlords, properties, and entire communities in an entirely different way. 

In this article, you’ll learn more about squatters, serial squatters, and how to remove them from your property. 

Squatter Definition 

A squatter is a person who takes possession of a vacant property and lives in it without the landlord’s permission.  

Squatters are different from trespassers, people who merely enter private property without permission. Squatters actually live in the property and occupy land rather than merely violating criminal trespass law. While trespassers can be removed quite easily with a call to the local police, squatters, as unlawful occupants, can only be removed by the sheriff via the eviction process according to local laws.

What is a Serial Squatter? 

Serial squatters are squatters who move from property to property, often in the same community, without being a legal occupant of any of them. They cost their victims thousands of dollars in eviction fees, may damage the property, and do it all without paying a dime of rent. 

So how do they do it? 

Like traditional squatters, serial squatters could gain access to a property by breaking into a vacant home without interacting with the landlord or property manager at all. However, some serial squatters get more creative. Many pose as real applicants but falsify their bank and income documents to obtain access to a rental unit.  

For instance, in Fair Oaks, California, two squatters showed their landlords $455,823.80 in savings on their credit reports and 401(k) statements. But as soon as the landlords handed over the keys, the squatters made excuse after excuse to avoid paying rent. Eventually the landlords enlisted the help of their realtor, who not only discovered that the documents had been falsified, but also that the couple had squatted in eight other residences in Sacramento County since 2008. 

What Attracts Serial Squatters? 

Serial squatters often target small, independent landlords who don’t run background checks on their applicants. These landlords may not have the resources or knowledge to systematically investigate rental applications, and serial squatters target them for exactly that reason. Smaller landlords also frequently self-manage their properties, so they aren’t backed by large corporations or property management companies. They may be more vulnerable to serial squatters and rental scams because they lack the experience, expertise, or manpower to smell out scams and deny suspicious applicants. 

How to Get Rid of Squatters and Avoid Rental Scams 

As a landlord, it’s important that you know the process of how to get rid of squatters in your state. Each state has different laws and procedures surrounding squatters, so it’s best to know these before attempting to remove a squatter. 

In most cases where squatters are living in your property, you’ll need to complete the full, legal eviction process to remove them. This means that understanding how to remove squatters entails understanding the typical eviction process in your state. First, you’ll need to send the squatter an eviction notice, providing them with a certain number of days to move out. If they don’t, you’ll need to file an action with the court in your state that holds jurisdiction over eviction cases. The squatter will receive further notice to attend a hearing, at which you can prove that the squatter never held a valid lease with you and should be removed by the sheriff. 

Because evictions can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, prevention is key when it comes to serial squatters. Here are a few ways to avoid becoming a victim of serial squatters and other scams: 

  • Inspect vacant properties frequently for signs of squatters. 
  • Run credit and criminal background checks on all applicants through a trusted service. 
  • Check all applicants’ eviction histories
  • Call applicants’ previous landlords to verify their rental histories. 
  • Require tenants to pay the first month’s rent by certified funds (e.g., a cashier’s check or money order). 
  • Always require tenants to sign written leases with you. 
  • Communicate with other local landlords in the community about suspicious activity and rental scams. 

Squatters Rights 

In certain circumstances, a squatter may be able to claim legal ownership (or adverse possession) of the property. This may seem like a landlord’s worst nightmare, but don’t fear—this very rarely happens in practice. In order to do so, squatters must meet a set of very strict criteria for a long period of time. 

First, a squatter needs to have lived in the property for a very long time—usually between ten and 30 years, depending on the state. Some states also require squatters to have color of title and/or pay property taxes for that length of time. Then, squatters in all 50 states need to meet the following five conditions for adverse possession: 

  1. Hostile/Adverse—The squatter must not have a valid lease with the property owner.  
  1. Actual—The squatter must be actively residing on the property.  
  1. Open and Notorious—The squatter is openly and obviously living there.  
  1. Exclusive—The squatter must not share possession of the property with anyone else.  
  1. Continuous—The squatter must hold continuous and uninterrupted possession.  

Only when a squatter has met the above five conditions for the length of time required by their state do they have a valid claim to the property. And even then, the squatter would need to go to court and bring an action to quiet title to contest the legal ownership of the property. They’d likely need a lawyer, and the burden is on them to convince a judge that they meet all the criteria. This is why it’s recommended to evict squatters as soon as possible to avoid instances of the squatter attempting to claim ownership and legal rights to the residential property through legal action.

As you can see, it would be very difficult for a squatter to successfully claim the right to live in your property, even if you don’t know about them for a while. A squatter who just moved into your property cannot claim squatter’s rights, no matter what they say. 

Conclusion 

Serial squatters have a reputation for being deceitful and dangerous, and for good reason. They know how to play the system, telling you what you want to hear to get access to your property and take advantage of you as long as possible. But by keeping a wary eye on your properties and conducting thorough tenant screenings, you can almost always avoid serial squatters and uncover other rental scams before anyone has signed a lease. 

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