Squatters can be a landlord’s worst fear. In a state like California, the laws tend to be much less strict on the squatter, which can worry property owners. However, being informed about what their rights are can help you prepare and prevent this kind of situation.
Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this is not legal advice. Please contact an attorney regarding any issues with your specific property.
What is Squatting?
Squatting, in the simplest of terms, is when a person moves into an unoccupied property that is not theirs and attempts to claim possession. They are typically there without the owner’s knowledge.
Squatting vs. Trespassing
The difference between squatting and trespassing is that trespassing is a criminal offense, whereas squatting is a civil matter. Typically the first response when discovering people in your property is to call the police and report trespassing. However, if they claim squatters rights (also called adverse possession) it becomes more of an issue. Squatters can still be arrested or evicted if they do not meet the qualifications for adverse possession or if they are found to be trespassing.
California Laws Regarding Squatting
When a squatter claims that they have squatter’s rights, they are typically referring to adverse possession laws. Adverse possession is the legal term used to describe what happens when a squatter takes over the property. In California, there are four requirements to make an adverse possession claim.
- Hostile possession: the squatter truly believes that they are the rightful owner; they are occupying the land without knowledge of who owns it; or they are aware that they are trespassing. Typically this means that the squatter moves into the property with no concern to who owns it because they believe they are taking ownership.
- Actual possession: They live on the land as if it is their own and pay associated bills and property taxes. This is in opposition to someone that would occasionally stop by the property or only use it for other, infrequent purposes.
- Open and notorious possession: Their occupancy must be apparent that they are living there; cannot be hidden. They are not sneaking around the property; they own it and can be observed by neighbors.
- Exclusive and continuous possession: Their possession cannot be interrupted or shared with other parties. This time period must be 5 years in California. If they were previously a tenant in the property, the 5 years begins once the tenancy ends.
You might be wondering why these possession claims exist in the first place. Simply put, the government would prefer to have an occupied property over a vacant one to avoid waste. This keeps the home maintained and the property taxes (usually) paid. California has some of the most favorable laws for squatters. Other states require that the continuous possession last for 30 years!
What You Can and Can’t Do If You Have Squatters
If you get to the property and find that your home is occupied, you’ll first want to call the police. Depending on the situation, they may deem it a civil issue if there is not present evidence of trespassing. It’s still a good idea to call the cops, even without obvious evidence of trespassing, so that they can make the distinction and there will be a record of the incident. In either case, you’ll want to consult your attorney and figure out what to do next.
In regards to what you can’t do, you cannot cut the electricity or other utilities, threaten them, or attempt to handle it on your own and remove them. This can not only be dangerous but can also have serious legal implications.
Tips for Protecting Your Home
The best thing to do to prevent the possibility of squatters is to pay your own property taxes and check in on your property. Squatters won’t be able to claim possession if you are the only paying the taxes. By stopping by your property every now and then, you’ll know sooner rather than later if people have moved into the property. If you don’t live nearby, consider hiring a property management company to manage your properties. They will likely be able to do routine checks.
Additionally, if you own rental property, look into squatters rights and adverse possession in your state. At the very least, you will be informed on your local laws should you encounter this situation.