Rental Management

What Landlords Need to Know About Squatters Rights

August 23, 2023

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A Landlord’s Guide To Squatters Rights

Almost everyone—whether in real estate or not—has heard the term “squatter’s rights.” It’s a term every landlord and property manager should know, but it’s often poorly understood.  

So, what really are squatter’s rights? Who gets them, and what does this mean for landlords? 

In this article, we cover everything you need to know about squatters and squatter’s rights as a property owner—from the claims squatters can make to how to lawfully remove squatters from your property. 

Who Are Squatters? Squatter Definition 

Squatters are people who move into a vacant property without being a tenant or getting permission from the true owner. They have no legal right or claim to the property when they move in and may even do so without your knowledge. Their occupation is against the law…until it isn’t. 

What Are Squatters Rights? 

So now that you know what a squatter is, what are squatters rights? 

The term “squatters rights” is not a specific set of rules or laws. Instead, “squatter’s rights” (known in the legal world as adverse possession) refers to the general principles under which squatters can sometimes have a valid legal claim to the property they’re occupying.  

There are five of these principles, which are listed below: 

  1. Hostile/Adverse—The squatter or adverse possessor must not have a lease with the owner of the property. 
  1. ActualThe squatter must be actively living on the property. 
  1. Open and notorious—The squatter is open and obvious about living in the property and isn’t trying to hide their presence.  
  1. ExclusiveThe squatter prevents other people from living in the property, just like an owner would.  
  1. ContinuousThe squatter must hold continuous and uninterrupted possession of the property for a certain number of years, which varies by state. In most states, squatters must live on the property continuously for around ten to 30 years.   

In general, squatters need to meet all the above criteria for the entire length of time that is specified by their state’s laws on adverse possession before making a claim to legal title. Some states (such as Florida) also require squatters to pay property taxes during the time they continuously occupy the property to make a claim to valid title. See the chart below to learn about the occupation and property tax requirements to claim squatter’s rights in your state. 

Squatter’s Rights by State 

State Minimum Occupation Length Property taxes required? Citation 
Alabama 20 years Optional; 10 years occupation + taxes sufficient Ala. Code § 6-5-200 
Alaska 7-10 years No AS § 09-45-052 
Arizona 2-10 years Optional; 5 years occupation + taxes sufficient ARS § 12-522 – 12-526 
Arkansas 7 years Yes ACA § 18-11-106 
California 5 years Yes CCP § 318, 325 
Colorado 18 years Optional; 7 years occupation + taxes sufficient CRS § 38-41-101, 38-41-108 
Connecticut 15 years No CS § 52-575 
Delaware 20 years No Del. Laws 10 § 7901 
Florida 7 years Yes Fla. Stat. § 95.18 
Georgia 20 years, or 7 with color of title No OCGA § 44-5-163 and 44-5-164 
Hawaii 20 years No HRS § 657-31.5 
Idaho 20 years No Idaho Code § 5-203 
Illinois 20 years Optional; 7 years color of title + taxes sufficient 735 ILCS § 5/13-101, 5/13-105 
Indiana 10 years Yes IC § 32-21-7-1, 34-11-2-11 
Iowa 5 years Optional; 1 year occupation + taxes sufficient IA Code § 560 
Kansas 15 years No KS § 60-503 
Kentucky 15 years No KRS § 413.010 
Louisiana 30 years, or 10 with color of title No LA Civ. Code § 742 
Maine 20 years No MRSA 14 § 801 
Maryland 20 years No MD Code, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-103, 201 
Massachusetts 20 years No MGL 260 § 21 
Michigan 15 years Optional; 10 years occupation, color of title, + taxes sufficient MCL § 600.5801 
Minnesota 15 years Yes, at least 5 years MN Stat. § 541.02 
Mississippi 10 years Yes, at least 2 years Miss. Code § 15-1-13, 15-1-15 
Missouri 10 years No MRS § 516.010 
Montana 5 years Yes MRC § 70-19-401, § 70-19-411 
Nebraska 10 years No Neb. Stat. § 25-202 
Nevada 5 years No NRS § 11.070, 11.150 
New Hampshire 20 years No NHRS § 508:2(I) 
New Jersey 30 years (60 for woodland areas) plus color of title Yes, at least 5 years NJRS § 2A:14-30 to 2A:14-32 
New Mexico 10 years plus color of title Yes NMSA § 37-1-22 
New York 10 years No NY RPA Code § 511 
North Carolina 20 years, or 7 years with color of title No NCGS § 1-38, 1-39  
North Dakota 20 years Optional; 10 years occupation, color of title, + taxes sufficient NDC § 28-01-04; 47-06-03 
Ohio 21 years No ORC § 2305.04 
Oklahoma 15 years, plus color of title Yes, at least 5 years OS § 12-93, 94 
Oregon 10 years No ORS § 105.620 
Pennsylvania 21 years No 42 PS § 5530 
Rhode Island 10 years No RI Gen. Laws § 34-7-1 
South Carolina 10 years, plus color of title No SC Stat. § 15-67-210 
South Dakota 20 years Optional; 10 years occupation, color of title, + taxes sufficient SDC § 15-3-1, 15-3-16  
Tennessee 20 years, or 7 years with color of title Yes, unless squatter has color of title TN Code § 28-2-109, 28-2-101 
Texas 3 years with color of title; 5 years if squatter cultivates, has color of title, and pays taxes; or 10 years if improves the land Optional; 5 years if squatter also cultivates and has color of title Tex. Prop. Code § 16.024-16.026 
Utah 7 years, plus color of title Yes US § 78B-2-214 
Vermont 15 years No 12 VSA § 501 
Virginia 15 years, plus color of title No VA Code § 8.01-236 
Washington 10 years Optional; 7 years with color of title + taxes sufficient RCW § 7.28.085, 7.28.050, 7.28.70 
West Virginia 10 years No WV Code § 55-2-1 
Wisconsin 20 years, or 10 with color of title Optional; 7 years occupation, color of title, + taxes sufficient WI Stat. § 893.25, 893.27 
Wyoming 10 years No WS § 1-3-103 
D.C. 15 years Yes D.C. Code § 16-1113 

Why Do Squatters Have Rights? 

At this point, you may be wondering, “Why do squatters have rights at all?” It’s your property—you (or your family member or ancestor) bought it, after all. Why would anyone else have a claim to it? 

To answer this question, we have to endure a short history lesson. The legal concept of squatting dates all the way back to medieval England but became particularly important in the early 1700s. During this time, commoners would farm jointly on common land, which became sparse when wealthy landlords purchased large tracts. Some of that land sat unused, and some of it became difficult to track due to lost titles and deeds.  

Squatter’s rights came about to encourage landowners to actually use their land instead of letting it go to waste. If an individual built a home and occupied a tract of unused land for a long enough period without the owner taking legal action against them, the individual would be allowed to stay. The United States adopted this principle as part of the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided legal protections to pioneers who moved onto vacant land, built homes, and planted crops. 

Today’s laws have preserved this albeit slightly antiquated idea of squatter’s rights. However, the existence of squatter’s rights today does still have some purpose. For instance, squatter’s rights encourage and incentivize landlords to look after and use their properties/land. They also prevent confusing scenarios in which an individual living in a home they thought they owned is asked to move when the “real” owner’s descendants discover a long-lost deed.  

How Does a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession, Get Color of Title, and Obtain the Title? 

It’s very rare for a squatter to truly meet all the above criteria for a legally valid claim. But what happens when they do?  

Imagine this scenario: You inherited a house from your relative in Michigan a long time ago. Instead of renting it out or selling it, you let it sit and don’t regularly check on it. Many years later, you finally visit the house only to find out that a squatter has been living there.  

Michigan law requires squatters to live in a property for at least 15 consecutive years to claim squatter’s rights. If your squatter meets this requirement and the four others, they may have what’s called “color of title” – an apparent title or claim to the house even without a valid deed. They can go to a local court and file an action for adverse possession. In adverse possession cases where the squatter is really serious, they may bring some additional evidence to support their claim for possession, including: 

  • Property tax receipts, if they’ve paid them 
  • Mail addressed to them at the property 
  • Evidence that they’ve beautified the premises, such as planting flowers or landscaping 

You, the owner, need to provide evidence that clearly disputes the squatter’s or proves your ownership and use of the premises. If the squatter brings an action to quiet title (a motion to decide the legal ownership of the house), you may be required to bring this evidence to a trial and present it in front of a judge.  

Only after occupying the house for 15 years, meticulously collecting evidence, attending a hearing, and receiving a judgment for adverse possession from the court, can a squatter officially and fully claim possession of your property and receive a clear title. 

How Do You Get Rid of Squatters? 

Squatters are concerning for many reasons. They can drive away other tenants, damage your property, or wreak other types of havoc. Plus, as long as a squatter is living in your property, you’re losing money on the rent they should be paying. 

So, how do you get rid of them? Let’s return to the squatter at your house from the previous section. In almost every state, removing a squatter requires going through the full, formal eviction process in that state. In practice, this means: 

  1. Calling local law enforcement to verify that the person is indeed a squatter, and not merely a trespasser (who can be removed by police officers and tried criminally). 
  1. Sending the squatter an eviction notice, providing the appropriate number of days to move out dictated by your state’s laws 
  1. Filing an eviction action in court 
  1. Attending a hearing to present evidence of the squatter’s unlawful occupation 
  1. Receiving an eviction order from the judge 
  1. Taking this order to the sheriff’s office, who will remove the squatter. 

Note: Only a sheriff can physically remove a squatter from your property. At no point should you attempt to physically force the squatter to leave. Threatening or harassing squatters is also not allowed. 

Can You Turn Off Utilities on a Squatter? 

Upon noticing a squatter, many landlords panic and try to think of the fastest way possible to remove them. If you’re in this boat, you may immediately wonder, “Can you turn off utilities on a squatter?” 

In almost all states, the answer to this question is strongly “no.” Turning off utilities like water or heat would fall into the category of “self-help” evictions, which are illegal. The only way to remove a squatter, in most states and situations, is through the legal eviction process. 

There is one exception to the rule above. In 2014, Michigan passed a law that legalized peaceable self-help evictions for removing squatters only. This means you could reasonably try to get your Michigan squatter to leave by making the property unlivable—changing the locks or turning off the gas, heat, water, etc., before you resort to the legal route and file for eviction in court. However, this special law only applies to squatters (self-help evictions are still outlawed for tenants in Michigan), and no matter what, it’s still illegal to try to physically remove the squatter yourself.   

Conclusion 

If you find squatter’s rights utterly confusing, that’s understandable. The procedures and policies for squatter’s rights can be complex, unintuitive, and dated. However, if you know the five simple criteria for squatter’s rights, you have a strong enough understanding to realize how important it is that you keep up with your properties and avoid legal entanglements with squatters altogether. 

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