California Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

Introduction to Squatters’ Rights in California

Squatters’ rights, also known as “adverse possession”, refers to laws that allow a person to gain legal ownership of a property they have occupied without permission from the legal owner. In California, squatters can make a legal claim to own the property they are occupying after residing there continuously for 5 years. 

Squatters differ from trespassers, in that trespassers occupy a property illegally but make no claim of ownership or legal right to live there. Squatters, on the other hand, occupy the property without permission but may be able to gain legal rights if they meet the criteria for adverse possession.

To make an adverse possession claim in California, squatters must occupy the property for at least 5 continuous years. Their possession must be actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile, and under a claim of right. They must also pay property taxes during this time. After 5 years, squatters can provide written notice to the legal owner and then file a lawsuit to quiet title. If granted, the court will transfer legal ownership from the original owner to the squatter through adverse possession.

So while trespassers have no rights and can be removed immediately, squatters may be able to legally gain ownership through adverse possession if they meet all the requirements over 5+ years. Property owners need to be aware of squatters' rights laws in order to prevent losing their property.

Requirements for Adverse Possession in California

In order for squatters to make a legal claim for adverse possession of a property in California, they must meet several requirements over a continuous 5-year period:

Occupy the property for at least 5 years

The squatter must maintain actual, exclusive, hostile and continuous possession of the property for a full 5 years without interruption. Any gaps in occupation can disrupt the continuity requirement.

Pay property taxes

The squatter must pay all property taxes on the land for the full 5-year period. Proof of paying taxes helps demonstrate that they occupied the land openly and continuously. Failure to pay taxes can be strong evidence against adverse possession.

Provide written notice

Within 5 years of occupying the property, the squatter must provide written notice to the legal owner that they are making an adverse possession claim on the property. 

Use the property as an owner would

The squatter must use the land as the true owner would, within the natural bounds of the property. They must demonstrate actual possession through activities like building/maintaining structures, farming, landscaping, etc.

California has some of the strictest requirements in the country for proving adverse possession. Squatters cannot make partial claims or gain rights to a piece of the property; they must meet all requirements for the entire land parcel continuously for 5 full years.

Establishing Hostile Possession

For squatters to claim adverse possession in California, their use and occupation of the property must be considered hostile. This means it was done without the legal owner's permission and the owner had no knowledge of the squatter's possession during the statutory period.

The possession is considered hostile when:

  • The owner does not give the squatter permission to live on or use the property
  • The squatter occupies the property without informing the legal owner  
  • The owner is unaware of the squatter's presence and use of the property
  • The squatter does not have any agreement with the owner to use or rent the property

The hostile possession standard prevents a squatter from trying to later claim they had permission from the owner if a dispute arises. As long as the squatter inhabits the property for the statutory period without the owner's consent and without revealing themselves, it can satisfy this requirement.

The owner being unaware of the possession is crucial. If the owner discovers the squatter at any point and tells them to leave, but the squatter refuses, the statutory clock typically restarts. The squatter would then have to remain in hostile possession without the owner's knowledge for another 5 continuous years.

Overall, the hostile possession requirement protects owners from claims saying they permitted the adverse use when they were actually unaware of it. This makes it more difficult for squatters to manipulate the system if confronted by the rightful owner.

Proving Actual Possession

To prove actual possession of a property in California, squatters must physically occupy and make visible use of the entire property, just as an average owner would. 

The squatter cannot simply occasionally stop by or only make use of a portion of the property. They must live on the land or use the full property for residential or commercial purposes. 

For a house, the squatter would need to live in the home as their permanent residence. For commercial property like a store, they would need to operate the business on the premises consistently. Empty lots present challenges for proving actual possession.

The squatter must demonstrate to the court that they occupied and used the entire property exclusively. That means the legal owner cannot still be accessing or using any part of the land. 

The more the squatter uses the property like a true owner would, the stronger their case for adverse possession becomes. But they cannot pick and choose only portions of the property to maintain and use. Actual possession applies to the whole parcel of land or building at hand.

Maintaining Exclusive Possession

For squatters to successfully claim adverse possession in California, they must maintain exclusive possession of the property. This means the squatter must be the only one possessing and occupying the property during the entire 5-year statutory period. 

The squatter cannot share possession of the property with the legal owner or any other party. If the owner visits, uses, or occupies a portion of the property while the squatter is present, this would demonstrate the squatter does not have exclusive possession. 

Additionally, if there are multiple squatters occupying the same vacant property, they likely cannot claim exclusive possession either. To meet this requirement, typically just one squatter or squatting family must exclusively use and control the entire property continuously for 5 years. Having other squatters or unauthorized occupants hurts the claim of exclusive possession.

The rationale is a squatter cannot adversely possess property if the legal owner or others are also exerting control and possession. Exclusive possession is one of the key factors courts look at in adverse possession claims. If this requirement is not met and possession is shared, the squatter has no chance of taking ownership.

Paying Property Taxes 

One of the key requirements for squatter's rights in California is that the squatter must pay the property taxes during the entire 5-year period of occupation. Payment of taxes helps demonstrate that the squatter is claiming ownership and possession of the property.

California law states that the squatter must pay all of the legally assessed property taxes in order to claim adverse possession. Failure to pay the taxes consistently over the 5-year period can potentially be used as evidence against a claim of adverse possession.

The payment of taxes shows the squatter is making an open and notorious use of the property, and not trying to hide their possession. It also indicates the squatter intends to claim ownership through adverse possession.

Some specific requirements for payment of property taxes by squatters in California:

  • The squatter must pay all property taxes for the full 5-year period. They cannot fail to pay taxes for any year.
  • The squatter must pay the taxes on time and in full based on the assessed amounts. Partial payments or late payments may weaken their claim.
  • The squatter should keep receipts or other proof that they have paid the taxes. This documentation helps support their adverse possession claim.
  • If the property owner also pays taxes on the property, it does not necessarily defeat the squatter's claim. But it does make proving exclusive possession more difficult.

Ultimately, the consistent payment of property taxes over 5 years provides critical evidence for an adverse possession claim in California. Failure to pay taxes consistently opens up this key element of the claim to legal challenge.

Written Notice to Owner

One of the requirements for a squatter to claim adverse possession in California is providing written notice to the legal property owner that they are occupying the property. This written notice must be delivered within 5 years of the squatter beginning their continuous possession of the property.

The notice must identify the specific property being occupied, and clearly state the squatter's intention to claim ownership of the property through adverse possession. California law requires the notice be served to the legal owner personally, or to an agent or representative authorized to accept legal notices for the owner. 

If the owner cannot be located or is unknown, the squatter must publish the notice in a local newspaper in the county where the property is located. The squatter must also post the notice conspicuously on the property.

Providing this written notice is a crucial step in establishing a claim for adverse possession. If the squatter fails to provide notice properly within the 5 year period, they cannot make a legal claim to ownership through adverse possession. The notice provides the legal owner a last opportunity to take action to evict the squatter and retain their property rights.

Removing Squatters in California

If you discover squatters occupying your vacant property in California, you will need to take legal action to remove them. Here are the key steps:

1. Serve Proper Notice to Vacate

The first step is to serve the squatters with a notice to vacate. For squatters that have been in the property less than a year, you can serve a 3-Day Notice to Quit. For squatters occupying the property for over a year, serve a 30-Day Notice. The notice must identify the unlawful occupants and demand they vacate the premises within the required timeframe.

2. File an Unlawful Detainer Lawsuit 

If the squatters do not leave after being served proper notice, the next step is to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit against them. This is a special kind of eviction lawsuit that seeks a court order to remove the squatters. Be prepared to provide evidence like photos and documentation showing the squatters are trespassing on your property.

3. Get a Court Order for Removal

After proving your case in court, you will be granted a judgment that legally requires the squatters to vacate the property. If they still refuse to leave, you can obtain a writ of possession and court order directing the sheriff to forcibly remove the squatters and their belongings. The sheriff will coordinate a lockout date and take all necessary steps to eject the squatters from the property on your behalf.

Filing an unlawful detainer action through the courts is the only legal means to forcibly remove squatters from your California property. It is essential that property owners follow all proper procedures and obtain the necessary court orders prior to any forced removal or lockout.

Preventing Squatting on Your Property

As the saying goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." While you do have legal options for removing squatters, it's best to avoid the issue arising in the first place. Here are some proactive steps property owners can take to prevent squatting:

Secure your vacant property

One of the easiest ways squatters gain access is through unsecured windows and doors. Make sure all entryways are locked and secure. Consider boarding up windows or installing security shutters while the property is vacant. Reinforce locks to make it harder to force entry.

Hire a property management company

Having a property management company regularly monitor your vacant property can help deter squatters. They can check for signs of break-ins and unlawful occupancy. Many property management companies also provide security patrols.

Install a security system and cameras

Installing cameras, motion sensors, and an audible alarm system can help prevent squatting and allow you to monitor remotely. Security cameras provide visual evidence if you need to take legal action. Real-time alerts notify you of any activity on the premises. 

Conduct regular checks

Walk through the property frequently to check for signs of trespassing and unlawful occupancy. Also ask neighbors to report any suspicious activity. Keep an eye out for strangers entering the property or lights on at night.

Maintain the exterior

Keeping your property maintained gives the impression it is occupied. Make sure the lawn is mowed and shrubs are trimmed. Pick up debris, flyers, and mail on a weekly basis. A dilapidated exterior is more inviting for squatters.

Post "No Trespassing" Signs

Clearly posting no trespassing signs establishes your control of the property. It also supports any potential criminal trespassing charges against squatters. 

Check with your insurance company

Speak with your insurance agent about coverage for property damage or liability related to trespassing and squatting.Your policy may cover legal fees, property damage, theft, or liability.

By taking preventative measures, property owners can reduce the risk of unwanted squatters. But if you do encounter unlawful occupants, be sure to follow proper procedures for removal.

Recent Examples of Squatters' Rights Cases

In 2018, a California court ruled that a couple who had been squatting in a vacant $4 million home in Los Altos for over 5 years were the rightful owners of the property. The couple claimed they had paid the property taxes, maintained the home, and made improvements during the time they occupied the home without the owner's permission. The court found the couple had established the requirements for adverse possession by occupying the home continuously for over 5 years in a hostile, actual, open, and exclusive manner.   

Another recent case occurred in 2017 when a homeless man began occupying a vacant $2 million home in the affluent Presidio Terrace neighborhood of San Francisco. He claimed squatters' rights and sued the owners in court after they attempted to evict him. The man argued he had paid property taxes on the home and established the five years of continuous possession required. The court ultimately ordered him removed, ruling he had failed to prove all the adverse possession requirements. However, the high-profile case demonstrated how California's squatting laws can enable lengthy legal battles between squatters and property owners."

Key Takeaways

  • In California, squatting refers to occupying an unused or abandoned property without the legal permission of the owner. Squatters may claim rights over time through adverse possession.
  • California allows squatters to claim legal ownership of a property they have occupied without permission under adverse possession, provided specific conditions are met. The statutory period in California is five years.
  • To claim adverse possession in California, squatters must possess the property continuously for five years, openly, and notoriously, treat it as their own, and pay property taxes during this period.
  • Property owners can protect against adverse possession by regularly inspecting their property, securing it, posting no trespassing signs, and quickly addressing any unauthorized occupancy.
  • To legally remove squatters, property owners may need to undergo the formal eviction process, which starts with serving an eviction notice followed by a court process if the squatter does not voluntarily leave.
  • The concept of squatters' rights and adverse possession encourages the productive use of land and resolution of property disputes but requires property owners to be vigilant about their property rights.
  • While squatters' rights can provide a pathway for the unused property to be claimed and utilized, they also pose challenges for property owners who may lose rights to their property if not vigilant.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you kick out a squatter in California?

Yes, you can remove a squatter in California, but it must be done through the legal process. This typically involves serving a notice to vacate and possibly filing an unlawful detainer lawsuit if the squatter does not leave voluntarily.

Can police remove squatters in California?

Police can intervene if there's evidence of trespassing or if the squatter is committing criminal acts. However, if the situation is viewed as a civil matter, property owners may need to obtain a court order through the eviction process to remove squatters legally.

Can you go to jail for squatting in California?

Squatting can lead to criminal charges if the squatter trespasses on private property, refuses to leave after being ordered, or commits other criminal acts. While jail time is possible, legal outcomes can vary widely based on the specifics of the case.

How long can a squatter stay in your house in California?

There's no set time a squatter can stay in a property before the owner takes action. However, under California's adverse possession laws, a squatter must occupy the property continuously for five years, openly, and notoriously, with paid property taxes, to potentially claim ownership.

What is the 30 day squatter law in California?

The "30 day squatter law" often refers to the idea that if squatters reside in a property for 30 days or more, they may gain legal protections typically afforded to tenants, making it necessary for the property owner to go through formal eviction procedures to remove them.

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