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Squatter's Rights

Washington Squatter’s Rights

January 3, 2024

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Squatters In Washington

Squatters – those mysterious figures who move into abandoned or vacant properties – have long been a subject of curiosity and confusion for property owners. Many people wonder—and fear—how squatters sometimes gain legal ownership of someone else’s property that they’ve occupied.  

Squatters’ rights exist in various forms across the United States, including Washington. 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 Washington state provides differ from those provided in other states. 

While most 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 Washington squatters rights and explain how adverse possession works in this state. 

Overview 

  • Minimum Occupation Required: 10 consecutive years 
  • Property Taxes Required? Optional; 7 years occupation with color of title sufficient 
  • Color of Title Required? Optional; 7 years occupation with property taxes sufficient 

Who Are Squatters? 

A squatter is someone who occupies another person’s property without ownership or permission from the actual 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 another person’s 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, 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 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 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 file an adverse possession claim. 

Washington State Squatters Rights 

Washington state squatters rights are specific to the state and dictate when and how squatters can file an adverse possession claim. To make a successful claim for adverse possession in Washington, a squatter must meet one of the following requirements as per Washington law (RCW § 7.28.085, 7.28.050, 7.28.70): 

  • Occupy the property for at least ten continuous years. 
  • Occupy the property, have color of title, and pay property taxes for at least seven continuous years. 

Squatters in Washington are not required to pay property taxes or have color of title (ownership of a property with an invalid or incorrect deed), as long as their occupation is at least ten consecutive years. However, having proof of color of title and paying property taxes does reduce the occupation minimum to seven years, so squatters can potentially make an adverse possession claim for the unoccupied property faster if they meet these additional requirements. 

Squatters must also meet five general requirements for adverse possession in Washington and all other states: 

  1. Adverse/ Hostile Possession—The squatter must not have a valid lease or rental agreement with the owner (they do not pay rent). 
  1. Actual Possession—The squatter must have actively lived in the property (actual possession) for a certain length of time.  
  1. 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.  
  1. Exclusive Possession—The squatter does not share possession of the property with anyone else. They prevent others from living there like an owner would.  
  1. Continuous Possession—The squatter must hold continuous and uninterrupted possession of the property (for seven to ten consecutive years in Washington). 

How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession/ Squatters Rights in Washington State? 

If a squatter has fulfilled both the requirements for squatters rights in Washington and the general squatter’s rights principles above (e.g., hostile 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 the right of possession and legal ownership of a particular property. 

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

  • Gather ample evidence for their adverse possession claim (e.g., mail addressed to the property in their name, property tax receipts, evidence that they’ve “beautified” the property, etc.) 
  • Prove actual possession in the legal sense for the minimum duration 
  • 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 make an adverse possession claim 
  • 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 and gain ownership of the property 

As you can see, a squatter in Washington 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 Washington 

In Washington, 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 proper written 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 Washington eviction process for squatters: 

  1. The owner must send a formal eviction notice, as per Washington laws on eviction. In Washington, the possible eviction notices are: 
    • A 14-day notice to pay or quit (for nonpayment) 
    • A 10-day notice to cure or quit (for lease violations) 
    • A 3-day unconditional notice to quit (for committing waste, unlawful business, or nuisances) 
  1. After the notice period has expired, the owner must file a complaint for eviction with the Washington Superior Court. 
  1. The court will issue a summons to court, which must be served to the squatter by the sheriff, authorized process server, or other non-party. 
  1. The property owner must attend a hearing to present evidence of lawful ownership of the property to the judge. 
  1. Upon confirming the landowner’s ownership, the judge will issue a writ of restitution instructing the squatter to move out within three days (for nonpayment cases) or five days (for all other cases). 
  1. If the squatter does not move out, the sheriff will return to forcibly remove them. 

Remember that police officers cannot remove squatters—you must call the sheriff, who is the only local law enforcement officer with the appropriate jurisdiction to remove the squatter. 

How to Prevent Squatters from Living in Your Vacant Washington Property 

Here are a few practical tips to prevent adverse possession claims and deter squatters from your 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 an experienced 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 Washington and be aware of any changes to Washington law on adverse possession claims. 
  • Contact a knowledgeable real estate attorney with questions about squatters or adverse possession. 

Conclusion 

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. 

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