A person who settles on land or occupies property without title, right, or paying rent is considered a squatter. If somebody moves into a property and does not have the legal right to be there, the law considers them to be squatting.
However, getting rid of them can be a tricky matter and might require court action.
A number of states have laws on the books giving people who have lived in a property for 30 days or more the same rights as a legal tenant. Squatters will typically move into an empty place, get utilities established in their name and hunker down. If they make it past the 30-day mark, getting them to leave is a costly process.
For this reason, it is very important to keep a close eye on your vacancies to ensure they remain unoccupied until they are rented legally. If you’re an absentee landlord, or you have a day job, advanced property management companies like Onerent are good insurance against squatters. Their managers routinely inspect vacancies to ensure they’re empty.
Read our advice article outlining where exactly your property management costs go if you're an independent landlord.
If squatters can successfully establish residency, the only way to get them to leave is to either work out a “cash for keys” deal, in which you pay them to surrender the property, or go to court to prove they are living there illegally. In the process, you have to treat a squatter much as you would a tenant against whom you have instituted eviction proceedings—because that’s what you’re going to be doing.
So, no cancelling the utilities, no padlocking the place, and most of all, no verbal or physical intimidation. If the squatter can show you conducted any “self-help” eviction measures at all, the court’s judgment could go against you.
By the way, interrupting utilities could backfire on you in another way. Without electricity they could resort to using candles for light and open fires for heat. You’ll manipulate the squatters into creating a fire hazard in your property. Similarly, shutting off the water means their bodily wastes will just sit there and ferment instead of being flushed away.
In other words, you actually do yourself a favor when you leave the utilities alone.
As soon as you learn you learn of a squatter infestation, call the police right away and tell them you have a trespassing problem. If the department catches it early enough, officers can usually drive them away. However, if you’re dealing with some crafty ones, they’ll convince the police it’s a civil issue and you’ll have to go to court. These days, it’s pretty easy to falsify a lease contract—anyone can get templates for them online. Once they get a tie to your property on the grid in their name, you’re looking at the eviction process.
Here, you might get lucky and they’ll leave upon receiving an eviction notice. But if you’re dealing with people who have done this before, you’ll be going to court to seek an unlawful detainer judgment. Experience has taught them exactly know how long they can stretch you out before the Sheriff’s department shows up.
Speaking of the Sheriff’s department, after you win the judgment, you should plan to have a deputy conduct the eviction. Practiced squatters will still be unlikely to move on their own. However, if they do go and leave personal property behind, you must remove it carefully and place it in a storage facility, which will then dispose of it at auction when the squatters don’t pay the storage fees.
In our opinion, you shoudln't be worried about renting properties out when you've done your due dilligence by screening every prospect. We wrote an advice piece titled, don't let the fear of eviction stop you from buying investment property because if you do you homework, you really shouldn't be scared!
With all of that said, the best way to deal with squatting is to keep a very close eye on your vacancies—even going so far as to have them inspected on a bi-weekly basis. Removing squatters legally is much easier (and a whole lot cheaper) when you catch them early.
Still worried about squatters? Take a look at Onerent Property Mangement! We can screen prospects, manage maintenance, and handle all rent payments for you. We can even give you a free rent estimate to let you know how much your property is worth.