Squatters Rights and Adverse Possession
Property records are a way of finding parcels vulnerable to squatting or being taken over by adverse possession. Appraisers’ notes and property tax records, which are public documents, are likely to reveal buildings and land that are in arrears on taxes, empty, or abandoned. These circumstances make them prime for others to move in and take them over temporarily or permanently.
Squatting is the act of taking over property by simply moving in and taking possession, such as homeless people may do when they find an abandoned building. Squatting is illegal, akin to long-term trespassing. Taking possession of a property through adverse possession is not the same as squatting as it requires openly caring for the property and taking specific legal and financial steps to become the legal owner.
The Process of Adverse Possession
If you claim adverse possession:
- you may not have permission from the owner or landlord to reside on the property, even for a brief time;
- you must make open, clear, unambiguous claim to the property;
- you must be aware that the property is owned by someone else;
- you must care for the property; and,
- you must file legal documents and pay taxes on the property for a period specified by state law.
Adverse possession benefits society by clearing up titles to land that is muddled by poor property records, by allowing interested parties to improve land that has fallen into disrepair, and by providing a mechanism and process for the title-holder to a parcel to dispute ownership by an interloper. A person may have possession of property “under color of title” that is, through the usual means of ownership but without a clear title due to a defect by the previous owner, and may subsequently clear the title through adverse possession process.
Each state has laws addressing adverse possession, for example:
- In Florida, a person cannot claim adverse possession unless he paid taxes on the property prior to taking possession and has occupied the property for at least seven years;
- In Georgia, certain requirements must be met giving the possessor the right to the property as well as tenancy;
- New Jersey’s recently revised statute differentiates between requirements for adverse possession of traditional residential property (now 20 years) and uncultivated property or woodlands (30 years);
- In California and some other states, courts may provide prescriptive easement for continued use of the property if not all requirements for adverse possession are met;
- In Rhode Island, land owned by nonprofit conservation groups is exempt from adverse possession claims;
The Status of Squatting
Some states have tightened laws about squatting to create more balance in laws that seem to favor the interlopers over the rightful property owners. In 2014, California began requiring homeowners associations to send notices to two addresses of owners in order to avert situations like squatters taking over unoccupied properties. Owners who fear that tenants are establishing residency for an eventual adverse possession may file suit for quiet claim of title that may prove ownership and thwart the takeover.
- are often homeless and in need of shelter, and usually have no plans to take ownership of a property unless they are part of an organized movement;
- may target properties handled by management companies that routinely pay squatters to leave, thereby having a place to live temporarily while awaiting “eviction by check”;
- may produce fake lease documents and get utilities turned on in their own names, clouding or hindering any police attempt to remove them for trespassing;
- may be victims of rental scams in which fraudulent leases are signed and rent paid to a fake owner or broker, only to learn from an actual owner or property manager that they are squatting;
- may require removal by the legal eviction process rather than by police for trespassing if they have occupied the property for a specified period of time (30 days in New York City); and,
- may benefit from knowing the local laws on trespassing vs. tenancy, the latter of which makes police helpless to remove them without a lengthy civil court process.
Organized movements have made squatting successful, particularly when unused city-owned buildings are targeted. A widespread effort to solve homelessness and bring attention to the problem began with an organized squatting effort in 13 cities in 1979. In New York’s Brooklyn neighborhood, the organization called Acorn orchestrated a movement to take over many city-owned buildings through squatting in 1985, eventually gaining control of 58 buildings that the city turned over to the organization. Squatters were then allowed to purchase apartments in the building from the housing authority that was established.
Recent Events in The News
In Texas, a rash of “adverse possession” home takeovers took place a few years ago, but trespassers tipped their hands by making filings with county clerks, allowing police to investigate the legitimacy of the claims before tenancy was established.
Soldiers serving long deployments may leave properties vacant and in the care of well-meaning friends. In one case in Florida, squatters moved in under the guise of helping with home improvements and claimed they had a right to stay rent-free. Florida allows a quick process called unlawful detainer which may be used to remove unwelcome guests and trespassers who do not have a legal tenancy, which allows the landlord to avoid a lengthy eviction process.
In Vermont where drug abuse is rampant, two elderly women were victims of squatters: one’s grandson let some friends move into an unused apartment in her home, while another took in a woman who needed help but neither could get rid of the unwanted guests when they allegedly began using drugs again, subsequently damaging the property and consuming water, heat, and food belonging to the owners. In Vermont, a newspaper article suggests that such squatters are more difficult to remove because courts are sympathetic to them.