What is a Squatter in Real Estate?



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If a building is left unoccupied for an extended period of time, it runs the risk of attracting squatters. While no homeowner wants uninvited guests living on their property, it can often be tricky to remove a squatter once they have settled in. If you’re concerned about squatters living in your home, here’s what you should know.

Key points from this article:

  • Definition of Squatters – Squatters are individuals who occupy a building or land illegally without owning, renting, or having explicit permission from the owner. They may squat for various reasons, including homelessness, political statements, or financial savings.
  • Squatters' Rights and Adverse Possession – Squatters have legal rights under adverse possession laws, which vary by state. These laws outline the conditions under which a squatter can claim ownership of a property, typically involving continuous occupation and payment of property taxes for a specific period.
  • Evicting Squatters – To evict a squatter, property owners should first contact law enforcement. If this doesn't resolve the issue, legal action through an unlawful detainer lawsuit is necessary. Physical force cannot be used to remove squatters, and the eviction process can take several weeks to months.
  • Preventing and Selling Properties with Squatters – To prevent squatting, property owners should maintain the appearance of occupancy. Selling a property with squatters is challenging, and it's often more feasible to sell to a cash buyer who is willing to handle the squatter situation.

Disclaimer – The information on this page is intended for general informational purposes only and not to provide legal advice.

What does the term “squatter” mean?

A squatter is a person who occupies a building or plot of land illegally. They do not own or rent the property and do not have explicit permission from the owner to live there.

People tend to associate squatting with homelessness, and many squatters are indeed homeless, but this is not always the case. Squatters may also move onto a property to make a political statement or simply to save money.

What are the laws surrounding squatters in real estate?

Each state has its own laws pertaining to squatters, known as adverse possession laws. These laws detail how to evict a squatter and what conditions need to be met for a squatter to claim a property as their own.

You can read the adverse possession laws for Texas here, the laws for California here, and the laws for Florida here. To find the laws for any other state, simply search for the corresponding statute listed on this table.

Do squatters have rights?

While it may seem counterintuitive for the law to grant rights to anyone other than a property’s legal owner, squatters do have rights. Specifically, they have the right to claim the property they occupy for themselves after certain conditions have been met. When this happens, the squatter is said to have adverse possession of the property.

Obtaining adverse possession is difficult in any part of the country, but some states have much stricter requirements than others. Here are a few examples of how squatters rights work in different states:

  • Squatters rights in California:

    California is famous for having laws that highly favor squatters. A squatter in California can gain adverse possession if they simply live on a property and pay taxes on it for 5 years in a row.

  • Squatters rights in New Jersey:

    A stark contrast to California, New Jersey’s laws lean in the favor of the property owner. In order for a squatter to gain adverse possession, they must live on a property for 30 continuous years in a standard residential area and 60 continuous years on uncultivated land. They must pay property taxes for at least 5 consecutive years during this period.

  • Squatters rights in Florida:

    While not quite as lenient as California, Florida makes it relatively simple for squatters to gain adverse possession, only requiring 7 continuous years of residency while paying property taxes.

  • Squatters rights in Texas:

    Texas is near the middle of the spectrum when it comes to squatters rights—stricter than California, but less strict than New Jersey. A squatter needs to occupy and pay taxes on a property for 10 consecutive years to gain adverse possession.

If you’re looking to learn more about squatters rights in your own state, a quick web search for “squatters rights in [state]” can provide you with more detailed information.

How long does someone have to occupy a home before they obtain squatters rights?

The amount of time it takes for a person to gain adverse possession can vary drastically from one state to the next. The least strict states, California and Montana, only require a squatter to live on a property for 5 years before obtaining squatters rights. The strictest, New Jersey and Louisiana, require 30 years. Texas is in between these two extremes, with a minimum residency period of 10 years.

How do you get a squatter out of your house?

If you’re wondering how to get rid of a squatter, the first step is simple: contact your local law enforcement.

If you’re lucky, this step will be all it takes—sometimes simply showing up at your house with a police officer is enough to convince a squatter to leave. Otherwise, you’ll need to take legal action to evict the squatter. In this case, having a police report on record will help ensure that the eviction process goes as smoothly as possible.

Why can't you just tell a squatter to leave your property?

While some squatters may leave if you catch them on your property and demand that they move out, many won’t budge unless you take legal action against them. This is because unlike many crimes, squatting tends to be done out of desperation. If a squatter is homeless and has nowhere else to live, it makes logical sense for them to resist leaving unless they face the threat of being arrested.

Can you forcibly or physically remove a squatter?

No matter how desperate you may be to get rid of a squatter, you cannot use physical force to remove them from your property. Not only can you be charged with assault; you’ll also be putting your safety at risk if the squatter chooses to fight back.

Removing a squatter legally may take time and money, but it’s much better than risking potential jail time or injury to yourself or your family.

Can you secure a property when a squatter leaves to prevent them from re-entering?

A squatter only gains the right to a property if they occupy it continuously for the minimum time period set by their state. If they leave before the end of this period, even temporarily, they forgo their right to adverse possession.

That means that if a squatter leaves for a while, the property is unambiguously yours, and they can’t legally claim it for themselves.

How do you evict a squatter?

Evicting a squatter requires you to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Unlawful detainer cases function similarly to the traditional eviction process, except there is no landlord/tenant relationship between the person filing the case and the person being evicted.

The steps for filing an unlawful detainer action will vary depending on your state, but you can use the processes for Texas, California, and Florida as references for a general idea of what to expect.

Do you have to provide a squatter with an eviction notice?

The process of filing an unlawful detainer lawsuit includes an eviction notice being served to the squatter. This notice provides the squatter with a date on which they need to be off the property once and for all. If the squatter has not left by this date, a court case will decide whether or not they have the right to stay.

Fortunately, in most cases, the court rules in the property owner’s favor, and the squatter is required to leave, even if it means being forcibly escorted off of the property by a police officer.

How long does it take to evict a squatter?

From start to finish, the process of evicting a squatter typically takes about 3–6 weeks. However, every eviction case is different, and sometimes it may take several months or even a few years to get rid of a squatter. Fortunately, extremely long cases are rare, and you can usually expect to have a squatter out of your hair within about two months.

How much does it cost to evict a squatter?

The cost to evict a squatter can vary depending on where you live and the complexity of your case. Between legal costs and filing fees, you can generally expect to pay somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 for an eviction lawsuit.

Why isn't squatting considered trespassing or breaking and entering?

Squatting differs from trespassing and breaking and entering in that the latter two are criminal offenses, while the former is generally regarded as a civil matter. While a squatter can be arrested if they do not have adverse possession, squatters are given special legal rights for a few reasons.

First of all, treating squatting the same as the crimes mentioned above would make property owners more likely to remove squatters through violent means. Secondly, laws pertaining to squatters rights discourage property owners from wasting land that they have no intention of using. Finally, these laws protect people who were given verbal permission to live in a house or apartment—such as family members of the owner—but lack the documentation to prove it.

Can someone “squat” in an owner occupied property?

If you currently live on a property (or have recently bought it and intend to occupy it in the near future) and someone tries to “squat” there, this is a criminal offense. Squatters rights only apply to individuals living on unoccupied properties.

This means that if you invite a friend or family member to stay in your home temporarily and they refuse to leave when asked, you can call the police to have them forcibly removed from the premises.

Do squatters pay taxes?

In many states, a squatter can only gain adverse possession if they pay property taxes during the period of occupation leading to ownership. In Texas, this means that a squatter must pay property taxes for 10 years before squatters rights can take effect.

Are holdover tenants considered squatters?

If the tenant of a rental property refuses to leave after their lease is up, they are considered to be a “Tenant at Sufferance” or “Tenant at Will.” While these tenants do not have the legal right to occupy the home, the law does not technically regard them as squatters. This means that holdover tenants are subject to regular eviction laws rather than unlawful detainer laws.

What is a squatter settlement?

Sometimes, a group of people will all take up residence together on a piece of land they do not legally own. The community they form is known as a squatter settlement or shanty town.

Unlike traditional squatters, members of squatter settlements don’t live in preexisting buildings. They construct their own crude buildings on the land they occupy, usually out of structurally unsound materials like plastic sheets, corrugated metal, and plywood.

Where are squatter settlements most commonly located?

While squatter settlements are most commonly found in less developed countries, they do exist in the US. These communities are generally built in areas that the average person would not frequent, such as the outermost edges of cities or areas near railroad tracks or rivers.

What puts a home at risk of being squatted on?

Squatters are naturally attracted to properties that are visibly unoccupied. If a building is boarded up, falling apart, never has its lights on, or has mail or newspapers piled up by its front door, squatters will take this as a sign that nobody lives there, and they might as well move in.

If you want to reduce the risk of squatters taking up residence on your property, it’s important to make it look like someone lives there, even if this is not actually the case. It helps to keep the house’s exterior in good shape, hook the lights up to a timer, and frequently stop by to check on the property (or ask a person you trust to visit instead).

Can you sell a house with a squatter?

While it is possible to sell a home with a squatter as-is, it is extremely unlikely that any ordinary buyer will want to deal with this kind of baggage.

The best way to get rid of a house with a squatter is to sell to a cash buyer like AMI. We buy homes in all conditions and can make you a no-obligation cash offer if you contact us today.

Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman is the owner of AMI House Buyers and a seasoned real estate investor with a heavy focus on the Houston & Katy, Texas areas. She has done numerous flips, has owned multiple rental properties, and is also a licensed real estate agent in the state of Texas. She is heavily experienced in the areas of foreclosures, water damaged properties, burnouts, and inherited properties, and works with distressed homeowners in all types of situations to help them understand their options and find potential solutions.


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