We decided to research and write about this topic after realizing that few people in the United States know much about “squatters rights”. In fact, not a lot of people even know what “squatting” is. If you are a homeowner or future homeowner, understanding squatters rights is very important as while it is an obscure (and arguably outdated) concept, it can have consequences for your property. In the below we provide a clear and up to date definition of squatters rights in the United States. We also provide some helpful history and important details by states. Depending on where you’re located you might want to skip ahead to your relevant state.
Table of Contents
What are Squatters Rights?
What is a squatter? A squatter is any individual who starts living on a piece of property without paying for the privilege of living on that property. ‘Property’ in this instance can be a house, apartment in a building or a piece of land. A squatter does not have a legal right nor any legal documentation indicating such rights, to occupy the property in question. Squatters rights are formally referred to as “adverse possession”. These are laws which detail situations where a squatter can legally inhabit and sometimes take ownership of a piece of property. To be clear, this is property that is owned by someone else that the squatter can use without paying for it. In some instances the squatter can end up owning the property without paying anything to the property owner. Squatters rights summarize the legal rights that exist for individuals who find themselves in these situations.
Why Do Squatters Have Rights?
Indeed it might seem odd for squatters to be able to gain ownership over property they never owned or paid for in the first place. To understand the origin of squatters rights we have to go back to the 19th century. Specifically, 1862, which is when the Homestead Act was passed and when the government put this law into effect. The law was meant to provide legal support and protections for pioneers who had settled in the United States and moved onto unclaimed land. If the land was considered vacant, the pioneer could build a home and start carving out spaces for crops and livestock. This allowed early pioneers to increase the amount of land that was under the U.S. government’s control at any particular time. A very logical next question would be: why is such an archaic law still relevant today? Well, the fact is that these laws haven’t been changed! That’s right, although 160 years have passed since the law’s enactment, it has not been changed. It is under these same archaic laws that squatters continue to be afforded the protections they are afforded. Said protections vary depending on the location, however.
The Difference Between Squatting and Trespassing
By its very nature, squatting constitutes trespassing. To ‘squat’ on a property the squatter has to physically enter the property. You would think that this in turn makes squatting decidedly illegal. But the reality is more complex than that. There is in fact a fine-line between squatting and trespassing. What the fine line comes down to is how the squatter gained access to the property. In most places it is considered trespassing if the individual(s) violates your property to get onto it. For example, breaking a window or breaking down a door. So in situations where a squatter uses an unlocked door or an already open entryway to get into the property, this may not constitute trespassing. As it’s not technically trespassing by the legal definition, squatters can therefore avoid prosecution. That said, it depends heavily on which state this activity is happening in as there are important differences in squatters rights by states.
Squatters Rights Vary By State
No matter where in the United States a squatter may be located, they are entitled to certain rights and protections. However, these rights vary by state. One of the major differences is how long a squatter has to live on a property before being able to file for title of the property. On this particular statistic there is a lot of variation by state. These are the states that have the lowest number of years required for adverse possession:
Among these states alone there is a wide variation in the required number of years. California and Montana only require 5 years which is half the time required than Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming and a third of the time required by Connecticut and Kansas. The below chart shows the required time for the remaining states.
Among the states which have a longer number of years required for adverse possession there is also a good amount of variation. As a property owner you should be especially vigilant in states like California and Montana where a squatter can file a claim for title after 5 years. On the other end of the spectrum are Louisiana and New Jersey. It would take very extreme circumstances for a squatter to be able to legally take ownership of your property in those states given the length of time that is required by law.
Other Important Considerations on States Squatters Rights
In some states if the squatter can present a deed to the property, then the required number of years can be lower. For example, while Alaska requires 10 years for adverse possession, this could be reduced to 7 years if the squatter is able to present a deed. Similarly, while it takes 20 years in Georgia, this could be reduced to 7 years if a deed is presented. With other states like Illinois a squatter can present a deed or demonstrate payment of taxes to reduce the time. If a squatter has one of these then the time gets reduced to 7 years. Below we dive into squatters rights in some of the largest states in the country.
Squatters Rights in Texas
In Texas, a squatter is defined as anyone who occupies an unoccupied home or property without permission. In some cases squatters are actually taught by nonprofit agencies how to use adverse possession laws to their advantage. As a reminder adverse possession laws are valid under the Homestead Act of 1862. They allow individuals to gain ownership of a property after publicly living there for a specified amount of time. In addition to this these individuals sometimes must have been paying rent and property taxes on the land in question. Moreover, the squatters sometimes also have to be in possession of a deed. In Texas, the official owner of the property is responsible for making sure that the squatters leave and aren’t able to enact the adverse possession laws. Landlords and property owners must make sure they have legitimate proof of their ownership so as not to lose parts of their property to squatters. In Texas, squatters rights can be applied to any real estate.
How Squatters Rights Work in Texas
In Texas squatters rights works as follows: if you find that you have a squatter on your land, you cannot forcibly evict them. Instead you have to hire a lawyer and take the squatter to court. The easiest way for the squatter to prevail in court is if they can prove that they lived there for a sufficient amount of time, using the below guidelines:
- 10 years is the default time frame in Texas.
- The time can be reduced to 5 years if the squatter cultivates or uses the land and pays taxes on the property, in addition to documented proof of title.
- The time can be reduced to 3 years if the squatter has documented proof of title such as an original deed, which gives them title to the property.
Squatters Rights in California
Similar to Texas, squatters rights in California apply to all real estate. California also has legal routes that will allow a squatter to gain title to property that they do not legally own. Under California law a condition for squatters to gain title includes possessing the property in question. The squatters possession has to be public and the property owner must be aware of it. In addition, the squatter has to have exclusive possession for a consecutive period of time. In California, squatters can claim adverse possession after five years. This is only if the squatter has also paid property taxes during this period. California has one of the shortest time periods for squatters to file an adverse possession claim; as a result, homeowners and first-time homebuyers in California should be especially aware of squatters rights.
Squatters Rights in Florida
In Florida, a squatter must occupy the property for 7 years in order to be able to gain title. In addition to this the squatter must also have “color of title” or have been paying taxes. Color of title refers to a situation where a document appears to be a valid title claim to the property but due to title defects cannot transfer or convey ownership. In order for a squatter to gain title in the state of Florida they have to meet four requirements:
- Squatter must either (i) be aware that they are trespassing (ii) merely occupy the land or (iii) make an honest mistake, which includes relying on an inaccurate deed.
- Squatter must be physically present on the property and treat it as their own.
- The squatters’ occupation of the property cannot be in secret.
- The squatters’ possession of the property must be exclusive and continuous.
If you find that you have a squatter in Florida you have to follow the eviction process in the state. There isn’t an automatic law in place to combat squatters unfortunately. The eviction process starts with providing a written notice to the squatter. In Florida there are three types of notices for evicting a tenant:
- 3-day Quit or Pay Notice: give the squatter three days to pay rent or “quit” the premises. The notice has to specifically state that the squatter has three days to either pay rent or move out of the property. If the squatter does not pay rent to move out, then you can file an eviction lawsuit at the end of the three day period.
- 7-day Cure Notice: give the squatter seven days to “cure” the situation. Given that the squatter is on the property illegally, the only cure is likely to vacate the property. If the squatter does not do in seven days, then you can file an eviction lawsuit with the court.
- 7-Day Unconditional Quit Notice: this notice allows you to terminate the tenancy at the end of a seven day period and proceed with eviction without giving the squatter time to fix or cure a violation. You can only use this notice in Florida if the squatter has taken certain actions such as destroying your property.
Squatters Rights in Tennessee
Tennessee is similar to most of the other states on this list when it comes to squatters rights. However, Tennessee is one of the more difficult states for squatters to gain title. It requires a time period of 20 years! A squatter is required to occupy a property for at least 20 years before they’re able to try to claim it adversely. This of course must be a continuous period of living on the land. Therefore, merely leaving the property for a few days can potentially restart the clock. It seems implausible (and probably impossible) to not leave the property for such a long period of time. As a result you could make the case that the threat of a squatter successfully encroaching on your property is quite low in Tennessee.
Squatters Rights in New York
In New York, if a squatter lives openly on a property without the owner’s permission for at least 10 years, they can make an adverse possession claim. Again, as with the previous states, this time period has to be continuous and in New York state the squatters do have to pay property taxes. The property taxes also have to be paid for the entire 10 year period. However, what New York landlords may not know is that it gets a bit more complicated than that. In New York, the eviction process is not favorable to landlords. This is because it only takes 30 days before an illegal trespasser is upgraded to the status of “legal tenant”. Letting it get to this point makes it a lot harder to have squatters removed from the property.
Squatters Rights in North Carolina
Squatters rights in North Carolina is similar to Tennessee. A squatter can file an adverse possession claim after 20 years. This includes the usual conditions of continuously living on the property without interruption for this time period. In addition, the squatters must also have been paying taxes during this time period. The squatter must also make it public and obvious that they are living on the property.
How Often Do Adverse Possession Claims Succeed?
Given the fact that squatters rights are predicated on an ancient law, how often does this become an issue? And when it does become an issue, how often do the squatters prevail? In studying these questions we found research that was conducted by the Center for Rural Affairs, which summarized data from 1960 to 2015 for the state of Nebraska with the use of Westlaw.
In short, the research found that while there wasn’t a very large number of adverse possession claims in Nebraska, they tended to be successful approximately 50% of the time. Interestingly since the 1960s there have been on average 3 cases per year in Nebraska and this has been the case for decades now. Bottom line – adverse possession claims do happen and should be taken very seriously as whether they are successful or not is a coin flip!
Squatters Rights: as a Property Owner What Can You Do?
There are several steps property owners can take to mitigate the risks of squatter rights impacting their ownership. Of course none of these approaches are foolproof, but individually they can help with avoiding the worst outcome.
- Visit Your Property Often. This is especially the case for owners of multiple properties. As should be clear by now, squatters need to demonstrate that they have been continuously living on the property for years in order to file a claim. Therefore, if you’re constantly checking over your property, you can find out about squatters and take action.
- Secure Your Property. If the squatter cannot get inside your property, then they cannot squat on your property. It’s that simple. It’s also a good idea to install alarms and cameras on your property to monitor activity to make sure your property is secured.
- Work with Your Neighbors. It doesn’t hurt to have another set of eyes to keep watch over your property. Remember that in most states for squatters to be able to file adverse possession they have to be publicly squatting. They cannot be living on the property in secret. So communicating with your neighbors if you aren’t physically present is another way of keeping watch over activity on your property.