What Is a Squatter?

Squatter’s Rights Explained in Under 5 Minutes

Protesters call for the elimination of rent requirements.
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A squatter is a person who begins living on a property they don’t own without permission. They do not have any legal claim to the property and are not tenants, but after a period of time they may gain “squatter’s rights.”

Learn more about squatters, squatter’s rights, and how having a squatter can impact property owners.

Definition and Examples of a Squatter

A squatter is someone who trespasses on a piece of property they do not own and begins living there without permission. They are not tenants, do not have a lease, and have no legal right to be there. 

Squatting commonly starts when a piece of property is unoccupied and isn’t monitored by the owner. Someone breaks in and begins living there. There have even been reports of people refusing to leave an Airbnb they rented, or moving into an unoccupied condo unit and paying the maintenance fees as if they were the actual owner.

Squatters can have rights for similar reasons that tenants have rights—to ensure that a landlord or property owner follows a legal process when removing someone from their property.

Unfortunately, squatters who understand the laws in their jurisdiction well can take advantage of them and force owners into lengthy and costly litigation—or even get paid to leave.

  • Alternate name: adverse possession

How Does Being a Squatter Work?

Again, being a squatter simply means that a person occupies a property that doesn’t belong to them and without permission. Once a squatter takes up residence, they may eventually acquire so-called “squatter’s rights.” Each state and even some cities have their own laws and timelines regarding when squatter’s rights take effect.

Until someone stays long enough to be legally deemed a squatter, they are trespassers and law enforcement could remove them.

Here’s an example of how squatter’s right can work: In New York state, once a squatter has been living on a property for 30 days or more, the landlord can’t simply call the police to have them removed or wait for them to leave and change the locks as they could with a trespasser. The squatter is now legally classified as a tenant with temporary rights, and the owner has to initiate an eviction lawsuit to remove them. But if the squatter has only been there a week, then the owner can report the trespasser to the authorities and the squatter will be forced to leave (and likely arrested).

In rare cases, if a squatter remains on a property for years, they could acquire “adverse possession.” If adverse possession is established, then the squatter could actually become the legal owner of the property. Again, states’ laws vary as to the length of this period. It could range anywhere from a few years to a couple of decades. To give you an idea, it takes five years in California to establish adverse possession, but 21 years in Ohio.

Types of Squatters

All squatters are treated the same under the law, but there are different types of squatting situations that a property owner could encounter. One situation could be a homeless person who found an abandoned or foreclosed property and settled in. Another: a tenant who stopped paying rent and refused to leave. Or a squatter may be a roommate or friend of a former tenant who demands to stay after the lease ends. 

“Professional” squatters are people who study the laws to find loopholes for moving into an unoccupied rental unit. Some groups even organize squatting as a form of civil disobedience in the name of advocating for the homeless.

What It Means for Your Property

Squatters can be a huge legal headache for a property owner. The moment you are aware that someone is on the property who does not belong, it’s important to contact the police and/or an attorney and see if you need to start an eviction process. 

The best way to deter squatters in the first place, however, is to do all you can to protect the property. Proper fencing, locked doors and windows, no trespassing signs, security cameras, an alarm system, and periodic in-person checks on the property can all help prevent squatters. And if you’re renting out your property, vet potential tenants with background checks and references to help avoid troubles later on.

Key Takeaways

  • Squatters are people who begin living on a property that does not belong to them.
  • After a period of time, which varies by locality, squatters can become protected by “squatter’s rights,” which makes removing them more difficult. Longer stays can even result in adverse possession, which transfers ownership of the property to the squatter.
  • In order to get a squatter off of a property, owners may have to go through the legal process of eviction. 
  • The best deterrent to having squatters is conducting regular property inspections and implementing security measures.