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Do Squatters Actually Have Rights?

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Technically, you could walk into a home that isn’t yours and declare ownership without paying a cent. There are a lot more details that would need to play out in just the right way, but theoretically, it’s possible through a process called adverse possession.

It’s the concept most people are referring to when they talk about “squatters’ rights,” which generally involves someone sitting on a property and using it as their own with the belief that staying there long enough gives them the right to be there. It can take years — sometimes decades — to obtain property through adverse possession, in addition to the other requirements the squatter needs to meet. Squatter, by the way, is not a legal term.

“As far as the popular notion of squatters’ rights — people going into a home and laying down stakes — that’s largely a myth,” said Garrett Ham, a real estate attorney in Arkansas. “Those kind of rights generally don’t exist.”

For example, a man in Ohio broke into a family’s home, changed the locks and decided it was his. Yeah, you can’t just do that, which is why he was arrested for breaking and entering.

Claiming What Isn’t Yours

Adverse possession was designed to deal with disputes over property boundaries, and the law establishes a statute of limitations after which an owner cannot argue that someone is wrongfully claiming his or her property. For example: In Arkansas, a squatter must continuously and openly claim to own a home, in which he or she has no permission to live, for seven years to take a property through adverse possession.

“You can’t be hiding, you can’t be sneaking into the place and no one knows you’re there,” said Yelena Gurevich, managing attorney at the Consumer Action Law Group of Panzarella Gurevich and Rode. She’s in California, where adverse possession can only be claimed after 10 years of continuous habitation.

“The only time I really see the word ‘squatters’ is if you’re looking at abandoned buildings and you see runaways and homeless people occupy those places,” Gurevich said. “They’re technically trespassing.” She said if they stay long enough they could probably claim adverse possession, though she noted city property cannot be adversely possessed.

Refusing to Leave

People who lose their homes often wonder about their rights. Once their house has been sold by a bank in a foreclosure, for example, they may want to know how long they have before they can be forced to vacate the property.

It depends on the state’s foreclosure laws, but once the house is auctioned, the previous homeowner generally doesn’t have a right to be there without the new owner’s permission. Even then, the new owner has to go through the eviction process before they can kick out the previous owner.

“They can refuse to leave if they like, but that will force the owners or the banks to evict them,” Ham said, noting that the previous owner is staying in the home illegally.

From that point, how long the person can stay in the home depends on how long it takes for the action to make its way through the courts, but the judge will most likely rule the eviction in favor of the new owner, Gurevich said.

However, there are situations that allow people to stay in their homes for a while after foreclosure.

“There have been cases when someone stays in the property for a year or for two years, either because whoever bought it is not taking any action, or the lender is not taking any action, or the paperwork is wrong,” Gurevich said.

A wrongful foreclosure is an entirely different matter, Gurevich and Ham said, and in that case, refusing to leave is definitely not the action to take. That’s the time to call a real estate attorney and get things sorted out.

Image: victor zastol`skiy

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  • Walt

    How about if you own it you go into your property kick their butts out along with their stuff.

    • bernd

      while this would be the logical thing to do you probably would end up in jail for “trespassing” with these absurd laws … and isn’t it against the law that government property does not have these limitations….

    • crusher1944 .

      they will be in a world of big time HURT. I rented an apartment to a guy, he rented it to someone else and they told me they have rights. a real wise guy. he did leave the same day after
      he had a vaster call on him

  • Marlene Rodriguz

    I’m with Walt on this, I also bought a home and the previous owner did not want to leave. We Bought in mid July, gave her a month to move out. Guess what???? She did not. so I said ok at the end of the month if you are not out, I will call the police. Well I did not call police, instead I went over to start “helping” her move, She called police, I almost got arrested for cruelty to Elderly, I am 59 years old. Anyway my husband got ahold of Watch Commander of police force, the guy jumped on the two policemen, they came back to the house and told her to get out, which she did. Thank God….living @mothers for almost two months, what a relief to finally claim my house…bittersweet

  • Gale

    Sriramulu… Oh BS. Quite whining the same tired things over and over all the freaking time. This story isn’t about politics. Go somewhere else and do your pity cry.

  • TrentC

    And the comments from the gullible start… the liburls dun take our houses.. yeah… right

  • Hazel

    Probably one of the dumbest laws around. If you buy a new house and have not moved in yet as the company is putting finishing touches on the house and someone moves in you lose your down payment and now you have to fight to get it back. Something seriously wrong with that.

    • Jess

      “As far as the popular notion of squatters’ rights — people going into a home and laying down stakes — that’s largely a myth,” said Garrett Ham, a real estate attorney in Arkansas. “Those kind of rights generally don’t exist.”

  • Gina Hoffland

    If I buy a house, and somebody else is saying it’s “theirs,” I should have the right to call the police, and get them out, immediately!! Not 10 or 15 years later, through the court system, (or however many years it would take) like the current president wants to do with all the illegal invaders that are trespassing, and ‘squattering’ in this country. Is my house free for illegal trespassers? Is the USA “free” for ILLEGAL trespassers?

  • efesgirl

    Rights for SQUATTERS? Absolutely not. What’s yours is yours. Nobody should be able to just walk in and take it over, no matter how long it has been vacant. As long as the taxes are being paid and the property is kept presentable there should not be any law, loophole or anything else in existence that allows freeloaders to decide they can just call a place their own.It’s no different then illegal aliens hollering about their “rights”. They HAVE no rights. The government and laws favor the criminals, not the law abiding citizens. This crap is just another way for the government to fill their coffers and bring unnecessary misery down on homeowners.

    • Turnip

      Does that apply to a vacant house where taxes haven’t been paid in 3 years+. If a squatter covers taxes & utility costs what are their rights?

  • Andrew Wilson

    Not to side with the squatters here, but the inability for the police to act is because it would be granting them authority to make a legal determination of rights. The police aren’t saying they can’t remove, they just can’t remove without a court order saying who has the actual property rights. Both parties could present documentation showing the police they have ownership (old deed versus new deed, forgeries, etc..), so until a court determines legal ownership, police can’t just force someone out. Its a hassle, but these laws are designed not to protect squatters but to ensure that only courts determine legal possession.

  • Just Saying

    Wondering why the squatters can’t be charged with B&E and or criminal trespassing? If they can’ produce any documentation demonstrating that they have a right to be there, the legal owner should not have to incur significant legal expenses to get them out and the police should have the authority to force them out and arrest them. Another example of how messed up our legal system is. When will the insanity stop, when law abiding people finally get fed up enough to have a revolution?

  • terry280

    That law was passed by congress to protect children and prevent child trafficing. It was not intended for the influx from an open border not protected by this president. Total abuse of the law.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    I’m sorry I don’t know the answer. I assume you have researched state landlord tenant laws for that jurisdiction? Mom may be eligible for help through
    Legal Aid to get her daughter evicted.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    I assume that if your sister’s boyfriend did not have a will leaving the house to her, then his beneficiaries are entitled to take possession of it. If your sister wants to try to stay there she needs to consult an attorney. If she can’t afford one she may be be able to get help through Legal Aid.

  • Debby

    I have lived in a home for 7 years taking care of a mans animals which are 2 guard dogs and 70 chickens. He was to pay me $35 a day and pay for all the animals foods and utilities. After 1 year here in the home he stopped paying for anything and disappeared. I filed a lien on everything my husband and I have done to this property but now the property has went up for auction and I have became disabled due to a car accident while living here. I’ve tried to work with the mortgage company and no luck. Now I get a notice on my front door from a real estate business stating I can rent the property or bid on it. I went to their office and have called several times and they are neglecting to make any contact with me. They told me I have no rights to this property and they didn’t know the property was occupied and I spoke to them for over 30 minutes the day they placed the letter on the door. I am disabled and I want to purchase but yet their telling me I have to move while the foreclosure is going on. What do I do? I’m not able to move and what do I do with animals that were left to die that I’ve taken care of and can go to jail for if I have to walk off and leave. Please I need advice and help!

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      Unfortunately Debby we have no idea how you should proceed. We’d recommend you do two things: first, reach out to a local real estate attorney or Legal Aid to find out what rights you have with regard to staying in the home while you try to purchase it. Even if you are unsuccessful, the lien you have may mean you will get paid when the house is purchased by someone else. The second thing we recommend you do is contact your local Humane Society or animal control office to find out about rehoming the animals so they don’t die if you are forced to leave.

  • Tyree Hiles

    what if the property was your deceased mothers and you were paying the mortgage and land taxes up to a year ago .

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      Unfortunately it’s impossible for us to answer on a case-by-case basis. You’ll need to consult a real estate or consumer law attorney to determine what your options are if you want to keep your late mother’s home.

  • Crystal Casesa

    How long after a squatter leaves do they have to come back and get their things they left behind before you can throw it out?

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      It no doubt varies by jurisdiction. You will probably need to talk with a housing agency locally.

  • Riddlerriddlesarebest

    Ok so friend had an apartment, our other friend was homeless so friend A with apartment let friend B stay there, now friend A moved to another state but friend B is still in that apartment in NJ, because friend A left friend B the key and said as long as B cleans it up B can stay there. Can friend B get into trouble? What are friend Bs rights?

    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      It may depend upon what the lease says. In some cases a “guest” (whose name is not on the lease) is limited in how many consecutive nights he or she may stay. And any rights may be further regulated on a state and local level.

  • Mean Greenz

    I been in a apt for 8_months now, been paying rent to a con artist. Now I have some people coming by saying they own the building . how can I find out who own the building I’m living in ????

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      It depends on how real estate records are maintained in your area. There should be government records you can search but exactly how depends on where you live. Try typing “property records search + your state and look for a free government website. If that doesn’t work, you could try calling a real estate agent and asking them to help you.

  • Tommy

    Hi I have a frind that is looking to squat in a home. He said the home is a foreclosure and is secured.. it has all the dates and paper work taped to the door. Can he squat in a forclosed home and get utilites and o ey by the squatter rights rules?

  • Roy Luna

    What about this scenario. A couple is leasing a home but the lease is in only in his name, all of the utilities are in her name. When the couple splits up …he walks away from the lease leaving his girlfriend and her kids in the home. Does she have any rights to stay? The property manager is refusing to accept her payment for the rent and has cut the water service off. Is there anything that can be done?

    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      It sounds as if she needs to contact a lawyer. Laws can vary by state and municipality.

  • kim

    I have been in a house for over 1 year found out the house was sold and the new owners want me out I have not paid my rent in 1 month I have a2000 deposit down and last months rent I was told they close on the house 1/15/16 and I need to be out by Feb. 1st but no one wants to give me my deposit back just told me the new owners want the house right a way what can I do. I do I have to move in 2 weeks

    • Jeanine Skowronski

      Hi, Kim,

      You may want to consult a consumer attorney to learn about your options and best recourse.

      Thank you,


  • Emery Sher

    A guy paid the taxes for 15 years and the landlord is no where to be found .Is it right he can have the dead changed ?

  • Turnip

    I hear ya. And what about when neighbors pass away. No liens or family that will claim the property. What’s wrong with taking possession and paying everything before it goes into foreclosure?

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