The term “squatting” refers to when someone occupies property without being the rightful owner of said property. Most people have heard enough about squatters that they have developed an image of what they look like. Many envision them as dread-locked sandal-wearing hippies painting abstract art and smoking cigarettes. And yet squatters come in many forms and although it’s not an overtly common problem today, squatting still happens, and it’s why there are laws that define how to deal with these situations.
What is a Squatter, Legally Speaking?
A squatter is most commonly defined as someone who has no legal claim to property but settles in and occupies said property. They don’t have to do it at gunpoint, either. Oftentimes, these are people who understand they can use a property that is vacant. At some point, the squatter may gain adverse possession of the property through involuntary transfer.
How Does this Happen?
If a person who owns a property neglects to visit it or use it for several years, they could potentially lose it to a squatter. In the simplest of terms, the squatter can make a claim on the property or land, take possession of it, and then use the land.
Every state and locality has its own laws regarding squatter rights. In New York City, for example, occupying the property for more than 30 days grants the squatter the legal right to remain on the property as a tenant. They don’t have to sign a lease agreement.
The general rules of gaining property rights via squatting include:
The occupation must be hostile
In this case, the term “hostile” is a legal term and it does not mean violent or heated. It means that there is an awareness of trespassing, that there is a simple occupation, or that it is a good-faith mistake. An awareness of trespassing, for example, requires that the person trespassing knows that they are trespassing, or the person does not have to be aware that they are trespassing. The person could also claim a good-faith mistake. This is when they did not know they were trespassing, perhaps because they relied on falsified deeds or bad deeds, etc.
The squatter must be in the property for a certain amount of time
The squatter has to occupy the property for a continuous period of time. This varies from state to state. In Texas, the period is ten years. That means that a person needs to have resided in this property for more than ten years. If a person leaves the property and then comes back, this won’t count.
The squatters must be exclusive to the property
In other words, squatters seeking to take ownership of a property cannot share the property with anyone else or any other squatters.
The squatter fixes up the property and makes it obvious that they are living there
A person cannot hide the fact that they are occupying a property. At the same time, one of the things that help people claim squatter’s rights is when they fix up the property. This includes cleaning up the yard, landscaping, fixing windows, etc. So, a person occupying a home can spend some time doing home improvement and show that they are caring for the property. In many cases when the property has been abandoned and neglected for a long time, this becomes an important detail.
How to Prevent Squatters from Taking Over Your Property
Legal experts advise that preventing squatters is better than having to deal with them. They can simply complicate things when it comes to trying to sell your home.
To prevent squatters from entering and occupying your property, you should:
- Regularly inspect the property
- Pay property taxes
- Place No Trespassing signs throughout the premises, if it is not occupied
- Hire a property management company
- Begin eviction procedures immediately
The bottom line is that squatters can use the adverse possession principles to file for legal ownership of your home at some point. As soon as an owner suspects someone is squatting or living in their property, they must begin the legal proceedings to get them out through a legal eviction. After 10 years in Texas, a squatter can make an adverse possession claim and they will no longer be considered criminal trespassers on the property.
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