Virginia Squatter’s Rights
January 3, 2024
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Squatters In Virginia
Squatters – those mysterious figures who move into abandoned or vacant properties – have long been a subject of curiosity and confusion for property owners. Many property owners wonder—and fear—how squatters sometimes gain legal ownership of the property they’ve occupied.
Squatters’ rights exist in various forms across the United States, including Virginia. 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 Virginia provides are different from those provided in other states.
While property owners can feel comforted that it is notoriously difficult for a squatter to fulfill all the requirements necessary to make a successful legal claim, it never hurts to be prepared. In this article, we’ll cover squatter’s rights in Virginia and explain how adverse possession works in this state.
- Minimum Occupation Required: 15 consecutive years
- Property Taxes Required? No
- Color of Title Required? Yes
Who Are Squatters?
A squatter is someone who occupies someone else’s 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, and they do not pay rent.
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 an unoccupied property without lawful permission is a squatter. For instance, tenants with expired leases are not squatters. Rather, they are “holdover tenants,” or previous tenants who once had a lease and were obligated to pay rent but no longer have the right to live in the rental property. Likewise, trespassers are also not squatters, as trespassing is a criminal offense. Criminal trespassers are people who enter onto your private property but do not live there, while squatters actually occupy and have continuous possession of 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 permission of the property owner. While squatter’s rights might seem antiquated today, the principles of adverse possession claims 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 make an adverse possession claim and become the legal owner.
Virginia Squatters Rights
To make a successful claim for adverse possession in Virginia, a squatter must meet the following requirements as per VA Code § 8.01-236:
- Occupy the property for at least 15 consecutive years.
- Have color of title.
In Virginia, squatters must both occupy the property for 15 years and have color of title for at least as long. “Color of title” means different things in different states, but it generally refers to nontraditional ownership of a property (usually without one or more legal documents, like an official deed). In Virginia, squatters must have evidence of color of title before filing a claim for adverse possession.
Some states also require squatters to pay property taxes for a specific length of time before filing an adverse possession claim. This is not the case in Virginia—squatters in Virginia are not required to pay property taxes, nor will doing so reduce the 15-year occupation minimum. However, showing evidence of paid property taxes in court may improve the squatter’s chances of convincing the court that they should be the rightful owner.
Squatters in Virginia (and all other states) must also meet five general requirements to make an adverse possession claim:
- Adverse/Hostile 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 an owner would.
- Continuous Possession—The squatter must hold uninterrupted and continuous possession of the property (for 15 consecutive years in Virginia)
How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession/ Squatters Rights in Virginia?
If a squatter has fulfilled both the requirements for squatters rights in Virginia and the general squatter’s rights principles above (e.g., hostile possession, actual possession, exclusive possession, etc.), they can file a claim for adverse possession or bring an action to “quiet title.” Quiet title is the legal action to claim legal ownership and become the rightful owner of a particular property.
Note, however, that just because a squatter files an adverse possession claim for squatters rights in Virginia, this does not mean they will be successful. There are many obstacles to winning an adverse possession claim—for instance, squatters in Virginia would need to:
- Gather ample evidence for their claim (e.g., mail addressed to the property in their name, evidence that they pay property taxes, evidence that they’ve “beautified” the property, etc.)
- File a quiet title complaint with the court
- Attend a hearing with the property owner in front of a judge, where they’ll present their case to claim adverse possession
- Successfully convince a judge that they have fulfilled all the state requirements for an adverse possession claim
- 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.
How to Remove a Squatter in Virginia
In Virginia as in almost all other states, removing a squatter necessitates the full judicial 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 a written eviction 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 Virginia eviction process for squatters:
- The owner must send a formal eviction notice, as per Virginia law on eviction. In Virginia, the eviction notice must be one of the following:
- A five-day notice to pay or quit (for nonpayment)
- A 30-day notice to quit with 21 days to cure (for lease violations)
- A 30-day notice to quit (for non-remediable breaches or repeat violations)
- An immediate, unconditional notice to quit (for criminal acts, illegal drug activity, or behavior that threatens health or safety)
- After the notice period has expired, the owner must file a complaint of forcible detainer (called the Summons for Unlawful Detainer Form) with the Virginia District or Circuit Court.
- A copy of the Summons for Unlawful Detainer must be served to the squatter by the sheriff of another authorized process server.
- The owner must attend a hearing to present evidence of lawful ownership of the property to the judge (the squatter might attempt to prove adverse possession).
- Upon confirming that the land belongs to the landowner, the judge may issue a writ of eviction at the property owner’s request. The writ gives the sheriff authorization to remove the squatter.
- The sheriff will set a date for the eviction within 15 to 30 days of the judgment, and then serve the writ to the tenant at least 72 hours prior.
- If the squatter refuses move out after the 72 hours, the sheriff will return to forcibly remove them.
Remember that police officers cannot remove squatters—you must call the sheriff, who is the only law enforcement officer with the appropriate jurisdiction to remove a squatter after the eviction process.
How to Prevent Squatters from Living in Your Vacant Virginia Property
Here are a few practical tips to prevent squatters from moving into your vacant property and avoiding disputes about squatter’s rights in Virginia:
- Regularly inspect your property.
- Ensure that all occupants sign a lease and pay rent.
- 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.
- Pay all property taxes and keep diligent property tax records.
- Educate yourself on adverse possession in Virginia and be aware of any changes to adverse possession law.
- Contact a knowledgeable real estate attorney with questions about squatters, adverse possession, or property law.
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.