What is Squating?


Squatting refers to the act of occupying an abandoned or vacant property without the legal right or permission of the owner. It typically occurs when an individual or group enters a property unlawfully and begins living there without paying rent or having legal claim to the property.

Squatters often target homes and buildings that appear vacant, such as foreclosed or abandoned properties. In some cases, they may break into and change the locks on the property to gain access. Other times, squatters will claim that the property has been abandoned and that they have a right to live there.

The most common squatters are the homeless who need shelter. However, squatters can also be opportunistic people intentionally taking advantage of empty properties to live in rent-free. They usually try to keep a low profile to avoid detection from authorities.

Squatting is considered illegal, although some areas have laws that protect squatters’ rights in certain situations. Property owners are usually responsible for removing squatters from their premises through legal procedures. If left unchecked, squatting can lead to property damage, unsafe living conditions, and legal complications. To be better prepared, you should also check out The Hidden Dangers of Real Estate Investing in Richmond, VA, including Understanding Eviction Laws in Richmond, VA, Working with an Experienced Real Estate Attorney, Partnering with a Property Management Company, and Understanding Local Zoning Laws.

How Squatting Occurs

Squatting typically occurs when a person or group of people move into and live in an abandoned or unoccupied property without the legal right or permission of the owner.

There are a few common scenarios in which squatting occurs:

Foreclosure Squatting

With the rise in foreclosures over the past decade, squatting in foreclosed and vacant homes has become more common. When a home goes into foreclosure and the residents move out, squatters may move in because the home sits vacant. Banks can take months or years to formally repossess a foreclosed home, leaving ample time for squatters to take up residence.

Abandoned Property Squatting

Squatters also commonly move into buildings that have been abandoned and left vacant for extended periods of time. This includes abandoned apartments, warehouses, commercial buildings, and houses. If a property owner walks away from a building and doesn’t maintain or monitor it, squatters can quietly move in without the owner’s knowledge.

Trespassing or Breaking In

In some cases, squatters may literally break into a vacant property by damaging locks or doors. Other times, squatters will enter through an unlocked door or open window, trespassing with the intention of staying without the owner’s permission. This is illegal even if the property is abandoned.

Deceptive Squatting

Squatters will also sometimes move into a vacant property under false pretenses. For example, a squatter may change the locks on a vacant home and then claim they rightfully rented it from the owner. This makes it more challenging to remove the illegal occupants.

Overall, squatting generally capitalizes on other people’s neglect or abandonment of properties. While unlawful, squatters often see it as a victimless crime if they move into an empty space not being used by anyone else at the time. However, property owners can suffer significant costs and damages when removing unwelcome squatters later on.

Squatter’s Rights Laws

Squatter’s rights laws, also known as adverse possession laws, vary by state in the US. These laws allow people to legally gain ownership of abandoned or vacant properties if they openly occupy the property continuously for a certain period of time, ranging from 5 to 30 years depending on the state.

To claim squatter’s rights, the squatter must occupy the property openly and without permission, meaning the owner is aware or should be aware of the occupation. They must also maintain the property and pay any taxes or utilities associated with it. Squatters cannot use force or trespass to gain possession.

Once the statutory period has passed, the squatter can file a lawsuit to quiet title, transferring legal ownership from the original owner to themselves. At this point, the original owner loses all rights to reclaim the property unless they can prove they gave the squatter permission to live there.

However, squatter’s rights laws do not authorize squatting in the first place. The act of occupying a property without the owner’s permission is still illegal, regardless of the ability to later claim legal ownership. Property owners can take legal action to remove squatters at any time during the statutory period.

Dangers of Squatting

Squatting poses serious risks and issues for property owners. If you have squatters on your property, here are some of the key dangers to be aware of:

  • Property damage – Squatters may cause extensive damage to the property by breaking windows, kicking down doors, tampering with locks, and more. They often have little regard for maintaining the property. Repairing this damage can be extremely costly for the owner.
  • Safety hazards – Squatters can create major fire hazards and unsafe living conditions through improper electrical wiring, hoarding flammable materials, blocking exits, etc. As an owner, you could be liable if injuries occur on the unsafe property.
  • Inability to access property – You may be entirely blocked from accessing your own property once squatters take over. They may change locks, block entrances, or even threaten you if you try to enter. This loss of access can lead to major headaches.
  • Legal expenses – Removing squatters is a complex legal process that often requires hiring lawyers and going through lengthy court procedures. These legal costs quickly add up and can become a financial burden for property owners.
  • Loss of rental income – If you own an investment property or rental unit, squatters occupying it illegally will result in lost rental income during that period, reducing the property’s profitability.

Squatting creates an extremely challenging situation for any property owner. Being aware of these dangers can help owners respond quickly to mitigate the risks and financial damage caused by unwanted occupants.

Signs of Squatting

Squatting often begins subtly, with squatters attempting to conceal their unauthorized habitation. Homeowners should be alert to any signals of squatting to address the issue promptly. Here are some signs that squatters may be present:

  • Unfamiliar vehicles parked near the property
  • Lights or sounds coming from a vacant home
  • Tampered locks, broken windows, or damage indicating forced entry
  • Missing appliances, furniture, or other items
  • Trash or debris accumulating on the property
  • Mail or packages addressed to unknown individuals
  • Makeshift camping setups inside or around the home
  • People entering or exiting the property who cannot demonstrate they have a right to be there
  • Strange odors coming from the home
  • Signs of cooking, smoking, or fires on the property
  • Unauthorized utility connections or meters
  • Attempts to conceal entry points with boards, tarps, or debris

Homeowners who notice any of these warning signs should thoroughly inspect their property and contact the authorities immediately if they suspect unauthorized occupants. Swift action is essential to avoid lengthy and difficult eviction processes when squatters claim residence.

Preventing Squatting

Property owners can take steps to deter squatters and prevent squatting from occurring. Some tips include:

  • Keep the property maintained – Squatters target properties that appear abandoned or neglected. Keep the lawn mowed, trash removed, windows intact, etc. Perform regular walkthroughs.
  • Secure all entryways – Lock all doors and windows. Board up any broken windows or doors. Install security alarms and motion sensor lights.
  • Post no trespassing signs – Clearly post no trespassing signs around the property.
  • Visit the property frequently – Frequently check on the property. Don’t leave it unattended for long periods of time.
  • Have a caretaker check on it – If traveling or unable to check regularly, hire a caretaker to monitor the property.
  • Don’t store valuables inside – Remove any valuables or appliances that may attract squatters.
  • Get to know neighbors – Neighbors can help keep an eye out for any potential squatters. Exchange contact info.
  • Act fast at first signs – If any signs of squatting are found, take immediate legal action.
  • Consult an attorney – Discuss steps for preventing squatting and options if it occurs. Be ready to act.

Taking preventative measures can help property owners avoid the costly, lengthy process of removing squatters. Being proactive is key.

Detecting Squatters

Knowing the signs of squatters and identifying them early is key to removing them quickly. Here are some ways to detect if squatters may be occupying your property:

  • Unfamiliar vehicles parked on the property for extended periods. Look out for cars, RVs, vans, or trucks that seem out of place.
  • Lights on in the home at unusual hours. If you see lights on late at night when the home should be vacant, it could indicate squatters.
  • Strange noises coming from the property. Listen for voices, loud music, hammering, or other odd sounds.
  • Signs of habitation like moved furniture. If you look inside and see furnishings or belongings that don’t belong to you, it’s a red flag.
  • Damage to locks, doors, or windows. Check for signs of forced entry like broken glass or damaged frames.
  • Utilities switched into a new name. Call utility companies to see if accounts have been fraudulently opened.
  • Neighbor reports of suspicious activity. Chat with neighbors to find out if they’ve noticed anything odd.
  • Odd or excessive trash on the premises. Unusually large amounts of trash outside could mean squatters.
  • Make frequent perimeter checks. Walk the property border routinely to spot signs early.

The sooner you can detect potential squatters, the faster you can take legal action to remove them. Be vigilant about monitoring for red flags.

Removing Squatters

Removing squatters from a property can be a challenging process depending on the local laws. Here are some tips on the legal process for removing squatters:

  • Research state and local squatter’s rights laws. These laws can dictate the proper procedures for removing squatters. Many states require formal eviction notice and court procedures to remove squatters, even if they have no legal right to be there.
  • If squatters have lived on the property for an extended time, they may try to claim tenants’ rights or adverse possession. Consult a real estate attorney to navigate these claims and follow proper eviction protocols.
  • Provide written notice to vacate. Even if squatters have no legal right to be there, most states require advance formal notice to vacate before filing for eviction. Typically 30 days notice is required.
  • File a lawsuit for eviction if squatters don’t leave after proper notice. The court will schedule a hearing and order their removal if they have no legal right to occupy the property.
  • Call the police if squatters refuse to leave after receiving a court ordered eviction. The police can supervise and enforce their removal from the premises.
  • Change the locks immediately after removing squatters to prevent re-entry. It may also be wise to repair any means of entry they may have used.
  • Be prepared for the process to take several weeks or months depending on the court system. Seeking legal counsel can help expedite the eviction process.

Removing squatters legally is essential to avoid civil and criminal implications. With the proper process, squatters can be removed and owners can reclaim their property.

Costs of Removing Squatters

Evicting squatters can be a costly and time-consuming process for property owners. Here are some typical costs and fees to expect:

  • Filing Fees – To start the eviction process, the property owner must file an unlawful detainer lawsuit which involves fees for filing and serving notices. This can cost $200-$500 on average.
  • Attorney Fees – Most property owners will want to hire a real estate attorney to handle the eviction legally. Attorney fees can range from $2000-$5000+ depending on the complexity of the case.
  • Court Costs – There are fees associated with using the court system, including filing fees and fees for things like subpoenas. Expect $100-$300 in court costs.
  • Sheriff Fees – If the squatters don’t leave willingly, the county sheriff’s department will perform the physical eviction. Their fees are commonly $200-$500.
  • Locksmith Fees – Once the sheriff removes the squatters, a locksmith will likely be needed to change the locks. This could cost $100-$300.
  • Clean-up/Repairs – Squatters often leave behind damage and trash that the owner must pay to clean up and repair. This can easily cost thousands of dollars.
  • Lost Rent – If the property is a rental, the owner loses rental income during the time it takes to evict the squatters. This lost rent can really add up.

As you can see, removing squatters is a costly endeavor, often totaling over $10,000. Having squatters can be a huge financial burden for property owners.

When to Seek Legal Help

If you suspect squatters are occupying your property, it’s important to seek legal help as soon as possible. Don’t try to remove the squatters on your own, as this can be extremely dangerous. Here are some recommendations on when to get professional legal assistance:

  • If you see signs of squatting like changed locks, belongings, or people staying in the property. Act quickly to start the eviction process.
  • If you are already in the process of evicting squatters and they refuse to leave. An attorney can help enforce the eviction through the court system.
  • If the squatters threaten you or become violent. Seek help from law enforcement and legal counsel right away.
  • If you are unsure of the squatter’s rights in your jurisdiction. Consult with a real estate attorney to understand the laws and proper procedures.
  • If the squatters cause damage to your property. You may need to take legal action to recover costs for repairs.
  • If the squatters try to claim ownership of the property based on adverse possession laws. You’ll need an attorney to dispute their claims in court.

The faster you seek legal help when dealing with squatters, the better. Don’t let the situation escalate without proper guidance. A real estate attorney can walk you through the steps to remove unwanted squatters safely and legally.

If would like to get our input based on our extensive real estate investing experience as Home Buyers in Richmond, VA:

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