As we continue to experience the negative impact of our current global economic recession on unemployment, foreclosure, and homelessness, do you ever find yourself curious about the real estate implications? As more and more people lose their homes to foreclosure, it’s hard to accept that vacancy rates are rising simultaneously with homelessness. In an effort to minimize this trend, it’s no wonder why legal squatting rights are becoming an increasingly hot topic.
Squatting is defined as a person occupying a vacant property that is legally owned by someone else. Although squatting is considered illegal in many parts of the world, it is sometimes a legal option in the United States and the United Kingdom. If you find yourself in a potential squatting situation, this topic is for you.
Rules and Regulations
Before you or someone else you know considers squatting, know the rules and regulations in your country. For example, in the United Kingdom it is legal but frowned upon to squat in residential buildings. In places like England and Wales, a long-term squatter can become the legal owner of a property. In the United States, squatters are discouraged yet tolerated in properties that are facing redevelopment.
Doctrine of Adverse Possession
A U.S. government policy known as the doctrine of adverse possession states that under certain conditions, a long-term squatter may claim the legal title of the property without the current legal owner’s consent. The conditions and time frame requirements are referred to as common law and statute of limitations, which vary by jurisdiction. Common laws are unwritten laws created as a result of prior situations, used for uncommon cases where the outcome cannot be determined from existing written law. In terms of adverse possession, Cornell Law School states that under the U.S. common law a squatter may legally possess a property under the following conditions:
- Continuous – The squatter must continuously reside on the property.
- Hostile – In this context, hostile refers to a squatter infringing on the legal owner’s rights rather than being unfriendly. Renters cannot be adverse possessors of the rented property regardless of how long they have occupied it.
- Open and Notorious – The squatter must make their property possession obvious so onlookers may inform the legal owner. Based on common law, a secret occupier will not be successful in an adverse possession case.
- Actual – The squatter must actually be in possession of someone else’s property. The legal owner has the option to pursue a trespass claim within the statute of limitations, which varies by jurisdiction.
- Exclusive – The squatter cannot share control of the property with anyone else, as if s/he was exclusively the actual owner.
Tips & Tricks
As you might expect, winning legal ownership is a long and daunting process for squatters. If the legal owner discovers the squatter, they have the right to pursue a trespass case against the squatter within the statute of limitations. Because there are certain legal loopholes for squatters, knowing your rights is key.
- Know your rights – Squatter laws and statutes of limitations differ by jurisdiction, making it necessary to research and understand your rights to be successful. In the state where your desired property resides, browse adverse possession and statute of limitation laws by state online using Nolo, FindLaw, and iPropertyManagement. To obtain additional guidance on relevant adverse possession information, also consider contacting the Attorney General’s Office in the state where the property is located. You can obtain your relevant state attorney general’s contact information on USAGov.
- Make sure the property is abandoned – Although the property may look abandoned from the outside, the owner may still be living in it or be checking in on it at regular intervals.
- Seek other options before squatting – Although you can squat in some locations without getting into legal trouble, it is always advisable to own property legally rather than squatting.
- Landlord and property owners: Be well versed in squatter rules – To avoid unnecessary illegal property possession, properties should be checked and maintained at regular intervals even if no one is living inside it. Usually, state and municipality housing regulations govern property owners on how evictions are handled. If a property owner discovers a squatter and wants to resume ownership, s/he should file a case immediately to avoid adverse possession.
Just think about the rate of homelessness and abandoned properties globally. If a squatter is genuinely living and maintaining a vacant, unclaimed property that s/she considers home, its a win-win situation.