What Is a Squatter?

A squatter is a person who settles in or occupies a piece of property with no legal claim to the property. A squatter lives on a property to which they have no title, right, or lease. A squatter may gain adverse possession of the property through involuntary transfer. A property owner who does not use or inspect their property for a number of years could lose the title to another person who makes a claim to the land, takes possession of the land, and uses the land.

Key Takeaways

  • A squatter lives on a property to which they have no title, right, or lease.
  • A property owner who does not use or inspect their property for a number of years could lose the title to another person who makes a claim to the land, takes possession of the land, and uses the land.
  • State laws regarding squatters and adverse possession can be superseded by local laws in some cases; for example, in New York City, if a squatter continuously occupies a property for 30 days, they gain the legal right to remain on the property as a tenant of the owner even though they never signed a lease agreement.

Understanding Squatters

Every U.S. state possesses its own laws regarding squatter's rights and adverse possession. For example, certain states require continuous possession of seven years to acquire privately-owned property, in addition to other requirements. State laws regarding squatters and adverse possession can be superseded by local laws in some cases.

For example, the state of New York grants adverse possession rights to squatters if they occupy a property in a continuous, hostile, and obvious way for at least 10 years. They must also have a bona fide belief they possess a right to the land. If all of these conditions are met, the squatter could claim the title for possession of the land. If the owner contacts the authorities and has the trespassing squatter removed before they have occupied the property for 10 years, the squatter would no longer be able to claim the title.

However, the laws regarding squatters in New York City are drastically different from New York state laws. If a squatter continuously occupies a property for 30 days, they gain the legal right to remain on the property as a tenant of the owner even though they never signed a lease agreement. The trespasser might break into an unoccupied property and begin openly living there. This may happen with investment properties that do not currently have tenants. If the trespasser is caught soon enough, they can be removed by the police and arrested. Squatters who go undetected by the owner and remain on the property for 30 days will require a legal eviction to remove them from the premise.

The length of time it takes for eviction proceedings to be completed may prompt property owners to offer to pay off squatters to remove themselves from the property. Eviction proceedings can sometimes take up to one year.

Example of a Squatter

Suppose a woman named Felicia bought a two-bedroom investment property in 2010 in Brooklyn, New York. In 2015, she stopped renting the apartment and it sat empty for several months. Facing foreclosure, Felicia decided to put the apartment on the market. Unfortunately, she discovered that a taxi driver had been living in the apartment for months.

Felicia called the police and reported the stranger for trespassing. After the police removed the man, she had the locks changed. However, since the man had been living there for over 30 days, he had established squatter's rights. Kicking him out of the apartment constituted an illegal eviction. When the squatter went to housing court in New York City, the judge granted him permission to enter the property just a few days later.