North Carolina Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

What Are Squatters' Rights in North Carolina? 

Squatters' rights refers to a concept called "adverse possession", which allows a person to legally gain ownership or title to an abandoned property if they occupy it continuously for a certain period of time. In North Carolina, this time period is 20 years of continuous, open, hostile, actual, exclusive and notorious possession of the property.

The property must be abandoned - meaning the legal owner has ceased using or intending to occupy the property. If someone begins openly living on the abandoned property, pays taxes, makes improvements, and claims it as their own without the owner's permission for 20 straight years, they may be able to file a claim for legal ownership of the property through adverse possession.

Simply put, squatters can potentially gain legal rights to an abandoned property in North Carolina that they do not own through adverse possession if they meet certain requirements. It is one way to legally acquire title to real estate without having to purchase it from the legal owner.

The rationale behind adverse possession laws is that if a property owner neglects their property for a long period of time, and someone else makes productive use of it, the title should switch to the squatter after enough time has passed.

Requirements for Adverse Possession in North Carolina

To establish adverse possession in North Carolina and be able to make a legal claim for ownership under squatters' rights, the squatter must meet all of the following requirements:

Hostile Possession

The possession must be hostile. This doesn't necessarily mean "aggressive"—rather, the squatter must possess the property without permission from the legal owner. The squatter is occupying the land for their own purposes, not with the permission of or on behalf of the actual property owner.

Actual Possession  

The squatter must be in actual possession of the property. They must physically occupy and use the land as if they were the owners. Things like erecting fences, making repairs, maintaining the property, and building structures demonstrate actual possession. Merely walking across the land or making periodic visits is not enough.

Open & Notorious Possession

The possession must be open and notorious, meaning visible and apparent to anyone. The squatter must make no attempt to hide the fact that they are occupying the land. Obvious signs like fences, "No Trespassing" signs, gardens, dwellings, vehicles, and possessions on the property make it clear someone is residing there.

Exclusive Possession

The squatter must have exclusive possession of the property. They cannot share occupancy with strangers, the public, the owner, or tenants. The continuous and exclusive possession gives evidence that the squatter is occupying the property for their own sole use.

Continuous Possession for 20+ Years

Finally, the squatter must live on the property without interruption for at least 20 years. They can take vacations or have periods of absence, but generally must use the land continuously as their permanent home for two decades or more. The 20 years of continuous possession must run all the way up until the squatter files a lawsuit to claim legal ownership.

Who Can Claim Squatters' Rights in NC?

To qualify as a squatter in North Carolina, an individual must occupy an abandoned property without the owner's permission. The squatter must meet all legal requirements for adverse possession in order to potentially gain rights to the property.  

Specifically, a squatter in North Carolina is someone who:

  • Lives on or otherwise occupies a property that appears unused, neglected, or abandoned
  • Does not have the legal owner's consent or permission to be on the property
  • Maintains continuous possession of the property for at least 20 years  
  • Uses the property exclusively, keeping out trespassers
  • Possesses the property in an open, obvious and hostile manner as if they were the rightful owner

Simply trespassing on someone's land does not make someone a squatter. In order to claim rights through adverse possession, the squatter must reside on the property without the owner's permission and meet all other legal requirements. 

Occasional trespassers or persons making sporadic use of an abandoned property do not have the same rights as a continuous squatter. The 20 years of uninterrupted possession is a key element for an adverse possession claim in North Carolina.

Squatting vs. Trespassing  

Squatting and trespassing are two different legal concepts in North Carolina. While they may seem similar on the surface, there are important distinctions between the two.

Squatting refers to occupying an abandoned property without the owner's permission. The key is that the property has been abandoned and is not currently occupied by the legal owner. Squatters who openly and continuously live on the property for 20 years can potentially make an adverse possession claim to legally gain ownership rights.  

Trespassing, on the other hand, refers to entering or occupying any property without the owner's consent, regardless of whether it is abandoned or actively occupied. Trespassing is illegal in North Carolina. Property owners can press criminal charges for trespassing, which is a Class 2 misdemeanor.  

The main differences:

  • Squatting involves occupying an abandoned property. Trespassing can occur on any property without consent.
  • Squatters may be able to gain legal property rights through adverse possession. Trespassers have no legal property rights.
  • Squatting itself is not a criminal offense. Trespassing is a criminal misdemeanor that can be charged.

So in summary, squatting refers to occupying an abandoned property without consent, with the potential to legally gain property rights over time. Trespassing refers to entering any property without consent, which is illegal and carries criminal penalties.

Holdover Tenants  

A holdover tenant refers to a tenant who continues to occupy a rental property after their lease term has expired. Unlike squatters who occupy an abandoned property, holdover tenants were previously legal tenants who are now unlawfully holding over past the end of their lease.

Holdover tenants do not have the same legal rights as squatters who may claim adverse possession. Since holdover tenants previously had permission to live on the property through a valid lease agreement, they do not meet the "hostile" requirement for an adverse possession claim. 

Although holdover tenants lack adverse possession rights, they are still unlawfully occupying the property without the owner's permission. Property owners can utilize the court eviction process to remove holdover tenants if they refuse to vacate the property after proper notice is given. The eviction lawsuit is typically faster and less complicated than an adverse possession claim.

Overall, it's important for property owners to understand that holdover tenants occupying their property after a lease expires do not suddenly gain squatters' rights. Holdover tenants can be evicted much more easily than squatters who may be working to establish legal rights through 20+ years of adverse possession.

Requirements for Adverse Possession Claim

In order to establish squatters' rights through adverse possession in North Carolina, the squatter must meet several legal requirements. The possession must be:


This means the possession must be against the rights of the true owner. The squatter must make it clear that they are occupying the land as their own, without permission. Simply occupying a property is not enough - there must be an intent to claim ownership rights.


The squatter must be physically present and actually using and occupying the land. Occasional or intermittent presence does not qualify. The squatter must treat the property as if they were the owner.

Open & Notorious

The possession cannot be hidden, secret or concealed. It must be obvious to anyone, including the true owner, that the squatter is occupying and claiming the property.


The squatter's possession cannot be shared with the true owner or others. They must be the only ones possessing and using the property during this time.


The squatter must reside on the property for an uninterrupted period of 20 years or more. They cannot abandon the property for any significant length of time or they may lose claim to adverse possession. 

The 20 year time period only starts once all requirements are met. The entire 20 year possession period must be hostile, actual, open & notorious, and exclusive.

Is Color of Title Required?

No, color of title is not required in North Carolina for an adverse possession claim. 

Color of title refers to a legal document that appears to give the occupant rights to a property, even if the title has a defect. In some states, color of title can help strengthen an adverse possession claim. 

However, North Carolina does not require a squatter to have color of title in order to make a claim for adverse possession. As long as the squatter meets all of the requirements for continuous, open, notorious, hostile, and actual possession for 20+ years, they can potentially gain legal ownership without any documented legal right to occupy the property initially.

The 20-year time period required for adverse possession serves as a substitute for color of title in North Carolina. As long as the squatter maintains possession for the statutory period, they can potentially claim rights to the property even without any deed, will, or other document to show legal title.

In summary, North Carolina is more permissive than many other states when it comes to adverse possession claims. The lack of a color of title requirement makes it possible for squatters to take ownership of a property without any formal legal right to possession. Property owners need to be diligent in monitoring their properties to prevent loss of ownership through adverse possession.

Do Taxes Need to be Paid?

No, payment of property taxes is not required for an adverse possession claim in North Carolina. Some states do require the adverse possessor to pay property taxes in order to establish a claim, but North Carolina does not have this requirement. 

The adverse possessor in North Carolina does not need to provide proof of paying taxes on the property in question. As long as all the other requirements are met - hostile, actual, open and notorious, continuous possession for 20+ years - the adverse claimant can make a case without ever paying property taxes.

Tax payments can serve as further evidence to strengthen an adverse possession claim if the claimant has paid taxes. But the absence of tax payments will not invalidate the claim on its own, as it might in other states. North Carolina case law has established that property taxes do not need to be paid to meet the "hostile" element of an adverse possession claim.

So if you are considering claiming adverse possession in North Carolina, you do not need to concern yourself with researching and paying any past due taxes on the property. Just focus on meeting the other legal requirements through your long-term occupancy and use of the property. With or without tax payments, you can still potentially claim legal ownership through adverse possession in NC.

Protecting Your Property from Squatters

There are several steps property owners can take to protect their property and prevent squatters from gaining adverse possession rights:

Conduct Regular Inspections

Property owners should regularly inspect all their properties, including any vacant homes or land. Drive by at least once a month and walk the perimeter to check for any signs of trespassing or unauthorized occupation. Look for lights on, vehicles parked on the property, noises coming from inside, etc. The sooner a squatter is identified, the easier they are to remove.

Post No Trespassing Signs 

Posting no trespassing signs around the property's perimeter and on buildings and fences makes it clear to potential squatters that their presence is not permitted. Signs should be placed in easily visible locations at regular intervals. Under North Carolina law, no trespassing signs must be at least 144 square inches and placed no more than 200 feet apart to be enforceable.

Install Physical Security Measures

Installing fencing, locking gates, security lighting, and surveillance cameras can also deter squatters from occupying the property. Fences and locked gates physically bar entry while lighting and cameras allow any trespassers to be identified. Securing all doors and windows of structures also prevents easy access.

Serve Written Notice

If a squatter is discovered, the property owner should immediately serve written notice demanding they leave the premises within a set period of time. The notice should identify the unwanted occupant and make clear they do not have permission to be on the property. Serving proper notice starts the legal process for removing the squatter if they fail to vacate as demanded.

Removing Squatters 

If you find squatters occupying your North Carolina property, you will need to take legal action to remove them. Here are the steps:

Contact Law Enforcement

The first step is to contact local law enforcement, explain the situation, and request that they come remove the squatters. Be prepared to show documentation proving your ownership of the property. The police can escort the squatters off your premises, but they may return shortly after.

Serve Written Notice

Your next step is to serve the squatters with a formal written notice demanding they vacate the premises immediately. This written notice gives them fair warning before taking legal action. Send the notice via certified mail and post a copy visibly on the property. The notice should provide a date by which they must leave, usually 5-7 days.

File an Eviction Lawsuit

If the squatters do not leave by the date specified in the notice, your next recourse is to file a formal eviction lawsuit with the courts. This requires submitting the proper documents and going through the full legal eviction process. You will have to prove you are the rightful owner and that the defendants are trespassing. The court may eventually issue a writ of possession and allow the sheriff to forcibly remove the squatters if they still refuse to leave.

The full eviction process can be time-consuming and expensive. Seeking legal counsel is highly recommended when removing stubborn squatters who refuse to vacate your property voluntarily. But following these steps provides the legal means to reclaim your property under North Carolina law. Don't resort to "self-help" evictions, as this can be illegal.

Key Takeaways

  • In North Carolina, squatters can claim legal ownership of an abandoned property through adverse possession after 20 years of continuous, open, hostile, actual, exclusive, and notorious possession.
  • For a squatter to claim adverse possession, the property must be abandoned, with the legal owner having ceased using or showing an intent to occupy the property.
  • The squatter must occupy the property without the permission of the legal owner, demonstrating a hostile possession.
  • While making improvements and paying taxes on the property can strengthen an adverse possession claim, they are not absolute requirements for claiming ownership in North Carolina.
  • Hostile possession in North Carolina doesn't mean aggression; it means the squatter occupies the property without the legal owner's permission, using it for their own purposes.
  • The squatter's possession of the property must be visible and apparent to anyone, making no attempt to hide their occupancy.
  • The squatter must possess the property exclusively, without sharing it with others, including the owner, and must maintain this possession continuously for the entire 20-year period.

These key takeaways outline the stringent criteria squatters must meet to claim adverse possession in North Carolina, emphasizing the state's legal framework designed to protect the rights of both property owners and those making use of abandoned land.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do squatters have rights in North Carolina?

Yes, squatters can gain rights in North Carolina through adverse possession. If squatters openly, continuously, exclusively, and notoriously occupy an abandoned property for 20 years, they may claim legal ownership.

How do I claim adverse possession in North Carolina?

To claim adverse possession in North Carolina, you must occupy the property continuously for 20 years, meeting criteria such as hostile, actual, open, notorious, and exclusive possession. After fulfilling these conditions, you can file a lawsuit to claim legal ownership.

How do I evict a squatter in NC?

To evict a squatter in North Carolina, serve a formal eviction notice, then file an eviction lawsuit in court if the squatter does not vacate voluntarily. Following a court order, law enforcement can physically remove the squatter.

How long can you squat in NC?

In North Carolina, squatters must occupy a property for 20 continuous years to potentially claim rights through adverse possession.

Can I kick someone out of my house in NC?

You cannot physically remove someone from your house without legal proceedings. If someone is living in your house without permission, you must follow the formal eviction process, which includes serving an eviction notice and obtaining a court order if necessary.

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