Pennsylvania Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

What are Squatters' Rights in Pennsylvania?

Squatters rights, also known as adverse possession, allow a person to gain ownership of a property that they do not have title to by occupying it continuously for a set period of time. In Pennsylvania, squatters can claim legal ownership of a property after 21 years of continuous possession. 

To gain squatters rights in Pennsylvania through adverse possession, the occupation must be open and notorious. This means it must be obvious to anyone, including the legal property owner, that the squatter is residing there. The squatter must occupy and use the property as if they were the owner. Their possession must also be exclusive, meaning they cannot share possession with strangers, the owner, or others.

In addition to 21 years of open, obvious, and exclusive possession, the squatter must pay any property taxes or make improvements to the property during that time. If they meet all the requirements, the squatter can file a quiet title lawsuit after 21 years to legally claim adverse possession and become the new owner.

Pennsylvania has some of the strongest squatters rights laws in the country. The continuous possession time period is among the shortest at just 21 years. Some states require 30 or 40 years of occupation before adverse possession claims will be recognized.

Who Qualifies as a Squatter in Pennsylvania?  

For someone to qualify as a squatter in Pennsylvania, they must be occupying property that would otherwise be considered abandoned or unoccupied. A squatter takes possession of a property without having legal ownership or the consent of the actual property owner. 

By occupying the property under these conditions, the squatter hopes to eventually gain legal ownership through a process called adverse possession. Adverse possession, also known as squatter's rights, allows a person to acquire title to a property that they have possessed openly and exclusively for 21 years or more in Pennsylvania.

To qualify as a squatter in Pennsylvania, a person must:

  • Occupy a property that is either abandoned or unoccupied. If the property has a known owner who lives there or rents it out, then it does not qualify.
  • Take possession without legal right or permission from the property owner. There can be no rental agreement or contract giving the person permission to be on the property.
  • Have the intent to take ownership of the property through adverse possession. Simply trespassing on a property does not qualify someone as a squatter. They must occupy the land with the goal of gaining legal ownership after 21 years.

Meeting these three conditions - occupying an abandoned or vacant property without the owner's consent and with the intent to gain ownership - is what qualifies someone as a squatter in Pennsylvania. It is the first step in seeking ownership through adverse possession.

Who Doesn't Qualify as a Squatter in Pennsylvania?

Not everyone occupying a property without the owner's permission is considered a squatter with potential claim to adverse possession. There are a few categories of people who do not qualify as squatters under Pennsylvania law:

Tenants

If a person is renting a property and has established a landlord-tenant relationship with the owner, they are not considered a squatter. Tenants have a rental agreement and pay rent to legally occupy the property, even if there is no formal lease agreement. Their possession of the property is with the owner's permission.

Trespassers 

A trespasser is someone occupying a property without the owner's consent. However, unlike squatters, trespassers do not have any intent to take ownership or claim legal rights to the property. Their unauthorized stay is temporary, so it does not qualify for adverse possession.

Holdover Tenants

Sometimes tenants will continue living on a property after their lease or rental agreement expires. These holdover tenants are not considered squatters since they had lawful possession originally as tenants. Their unauthorized holdover after the rental period ends does not demonstrate hostile intent to claim ownership required for adverse possession. The owner can evict them like any other unauthorized occupant.

How Do Squatters Claim Adverse Possession in Pennsylvania?

In order to claim adverse possession in Pennsylvania, a squatter must occupy the property continuously for 21 years. This means using the property as their permanent residence and not leaving for extended periods of time.  

The squatter must also pay any property taxes associated with the land during those 21 years. If the rightful owner is paying the taxes, the squatter's claim could be void. The squatter should make efforts to take over payment of the taxes.

Making improvements to the property can strengthen a squatter's adverse possession claim in Pennsylvania. Things like remodeling, adding buildings, maintaining landscaping, and other investments into the property demonstrate the squatter is acting like an owner.

Importantly, the squatter needs to use the land as an average owner would. They can't just do the bare minimum to get by. The squatter should utilize the entire property as if they were the rightful owner. This open and obvious possession is key to a successful claim.

Meeting all the requirements for continuous, actual, open, notorious, and hostile possession for 21 years can award a squatter legal ownership through adverse possession in Pennsylvania. It's not an easy path, but persistence and meeting the letter of the law can make it possible.

How to Remove Squatters in Pennsylvania

If you find someone unlawfully occupying your property in Pennsylvania, you will need to take legal action to remove them. Here are the steps for removing squatters from your property:

Serve a Notice to Vacate 

The first step is to provide written notice demanding that the squatters leave the premises. In Pennsylvania, you must give squatters at least 10 days' notice. Make sure to identify the location of the property and provide a specific date by which they must vacate. Send the notice by registered mail and post a copy on the property.

File an Eviction Lawsuit

If the squatters do not leave by the deadline on the notice, your next step is to file a complaint in court requesting their eviction. This begins the formal legal process for removing the squatters and regaining possession of your property. You do not need a lawyer to file the eviction lawsuit.  

Get a Court Order to Remove Them

After you have filed the lawsuit, the court will schedule a hearing. If the judge sides in your favor, they will issue an eviction order requiring the squatters to vacate by a certain date and authorizing the sheriff to remove them if they fail to leave. If the squatters don't comply with the court order, the sheriff can forcibly remove them and lock them out of the property.

Following these steps will allow you to legally remove unwanted squatters from your property through the court system in Pennsylvania. Be sure to have documentation proving your ownership of the property ready. Obtaining a lawyer can also help ensure the process goes smoothly.

How to Prevent Squatters in Pennsylvania

There are several steps property owners can take to prevent squatters from occupying their property in Pennsylvania:

Conduct Regular Property Inspections

The best way to prevent squatters is to frequently check on your property. Drive by or inspect the property regularly to ensure no one is occupying it without permission. Look for signs like broken locks, lights being on, belongings inside, etc.

Maintain the Property

Squatters are more likely to occupy rundown, abandoned properties. Keep the lawn mowed, make any needed repairs, and ensure the property looks actively maintained. Consider hiring a property management company if you can't regularly maintain it yourself.

Install Security Systems

Alarm systems, security cameras, motion sensor lights, and no trespassing signs can help deter potential squatters. Make sure any security systems are functioning and recordings/notifications are monitored. 

Keep Good Records

Documentation showing you actively own and manage the property will help in any adverse possession disputes. Keep records of maintenance, inspections, communications with tenants, and anything demonstrating your ongoing ownership.

Taking proactive prevention measures allows you to more easily monitor your property and avoid lengthy squatters rights battles in Pennsylvania. Special care should be taken for out-of-state owners or vacant/abandoned properties susceptible to squatting.

Recent Changes to Squatters Laws in Pennsylvania

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued a ruling in the case of Moore v. Duran that clarified certain aspects of the state's adverse possession laws. 

The court ruled that using a vacant property for sporadic activities like hunting or storing equipment does not constitute continuous possession required for adverse possession. The activities need to demonstrate possession similar to an average owner using the property as their own.

In addition, the court ruled that encroaching structures like driveways or fences need to be exclusively used by the adverse possessor. Shared use with the legal owner does not qualify as adverse possession.

Overall, the Moore v. Duran ruling narrowed the interpretation of squatters being able to claim continuous and exclusive possession of a property. The court emphasized that adverse possession claims need to show actual, continuous, open, notorious, and hostile possession for the entire 21-year statutory period.

This recent ruling makes it more difficult for squatters to successfully claim adverse possession in Pennsylvania. The court has upheld a strict standard for defining what constitutes continuous and exclusive possession required to claim squatters rights.

Examples of Squatters Rights Cases in Pennsylvania

One famous case of squatters rights in Pennsylvania involved a man named James Graham who moved into an abandoned row house in Philadelphia in 2002. The property had been vacant for over 2 decades and was in severe disrepair. Graham spent years fixing up the property, installing new plumbing, electrical wiring, floors, walls, and a roof. He also paid the back taxes on the property to prevent it from going to sheriff's sale. After living there for over 20 years and investing tens of thousands in repairs, Graham filed a claim for adverse possession. Despite opposition from the long-absentee owners of the property, the court awarded ownership to Graham in 2020, citing continuous possession and significant improvement to the property.

Another noteworthy case involved the adverse possession of a hunting cabin in rural Pennsylvania. The cabin had been vacant for over 30 years when a group of friends stumbled upon it and decided to fix it up for recreational use. They invested money into repairs and used the cabin frequently over the statutory period. When the heirs of the original owners attempted to reclaim the property, the friends were able to gain legal ownership by proving long-term open and continuous use. The case set a precedent for adverse possession of unused recreational properties.

In a recent urban case, a homeless woman occupied a vacant Philadelphia row home and slowly improved it over two decades. She gained notoriety in the neighborhood for nurturing a garden that beautified the block. After proper notice to the owner, courts granted her ownership of the property citing the significant care and investment she had put into the home. Her case garnered public support and illustrated the value of squatter's rights for urban improvement.

Comparison to Other States' Squatters Laws

Pennsylvania's squatters rights laws are similar to other states in some ways but more extreme in others. Here's how Pennsylvania compares:

Length of Possession

At 21 years, Pennsylvania has one of the longest adverse possession periods in the nation. The national average is around 10 years, while neighboring states like Ohio and New Jersey require just 20 and 30 years respectively.

Payment of Taxes

Most states require squatters to pay property taxes in order to claim adverse possession. Pennsylvania is unique in that payment of taxes is not an absolute requirement, as long as other conditions are met.

Type of Possession

Like most states, Pennsylvania requires open, continuous, exclusive, hostile possession. But Pennsylvania sets a high bar for "open and notorious" possession compared to other states. 

Good Faith

A few states allow claims in good faith, like if a squatter mistakenly believes they own the property. Pennsylvania only allows hostile claims.

Permissible Lands

Many states don't permit claims on publicly owned lands. PA allows claims on private and public lands. 

Unoccupied Land

Some states restrict claims on vacant or abandoned land. Pennsylvania openly permits adverse possession of unoccupied properties.

Claiming Mineral Rights

Most states treat surface rights and mineral rights differently. But PA allows squatting on subsurface minerals. 

Overall, Pennsylvania's 21-year requirement is longer than average but the state otherwise has some of the most generous and far-reaching squatters rights laws in the country. Few protections exist for property owners compared to other states.

Key Takeaways

  • In Pennsylvania, squatters can claim legal ownership of a property after 21 years of continuous and uninterrupted possession.
  • To claim ownership, squatters must meet several criteria: the possession must be open and notorious (visible and obvious to the public), exclusive (not shared with others), and hostile (without the owner's permission).
  • Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not strictly require squatters to pay property taxes on the property they are claiming through adverse possession. However, doing so can strengthen their claim.
  • Individuals qualify as squatters if they occupy an abandoned or unoccupied property without the owner's consent, aiming to gain legal ownership through adverse possession. This does not apply to tenants with a lease agreement or individuals simply trespassing.
  • After fulfilling the 21-year requirement, squatters must file a quiet title lawsuit to legally claim the property. This requires providing evidence of their continuous, open, notorious, exclusive, and hostile possession.
  • Property owners can protect their properties from squatters by regularly inspecting the property, securing entrances, posting "No Trespassing" signs, and maintaining up-to-date property taxes and documentation.
  • Pennsylvania's 21-year requirement for adverse possession is on the longer side compared to many states. The state's laws are relatively permissive in favor of squatters, providing a legal pathway to ownership without the stringent requirement of paying property taxes that is found in some other jurisdictions.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does a squatter need to occupy a property in Pennsylvania to claim adverse possession?

In Pennsylvania, a squatter needs to live on the property continuously for 21 years before they can make an adverse possession claim. The 21-year clock starts ticking from the first day the squatter occupies the property. 

What are the specific requirements for adverse possession in Pennsylvania?

To successfully claim adverse possession in Pennsylvania, the squatter must demonstrate:

  • Continuous possession of the property for 21 years. This means residing on the land without any extended absences.
  • Actual possession by occupying and using the property as an average owner would. 
  • Open and notorious possession that makes it clear to the public they are residing there.
  • Exclusive possession without the permission of the legal owner. 
  • Hostile possession without the legal owner's consent.

Who qualifies as a squatter for adverse possession in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, anyone who occupies an abandoned or unoccupied property without the legal owner's permission and with the intent to gain ownership can qualify as a squatter. They cannot have any existing rental agreement or relationship with the owner. 

What options does a property owner have to remove squatters in Pennsylvania?

If a property owner discovers squatters on their land in Pennsylvania, they can:

  • Serve the squatters with a notice to vacate, giving them 10-30 days to leave.
  • File an eviction lawsuit against the squatters if they do not leave. 
  • Obtain a court order to have the sheriff forcibly remove the squatters.

The owner should move quickly to remove the squatters before they can make an adverse possession claim.

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