South Carolina Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

What are Squatters' Rights in South Carolina?

Squatters rights, also known as adverse possession, are laws that allow a person to gain legal ownership of a property that they have occupied without permission from the property owner for an extended period of time. 

The rationale behind these laws is that if a property owner neglects their duty to monitor and maintain control of their land for many years, then the concept of ownership can legally transfer to the person who has been actively possessing and using the property.

In South Carolina, adverse possession laws do exist which can grant ownership rights to squatters under certain conditions. The requirements are stringent though, and squatters cannot simply move onto a property and automatically claim it as their own after a set period of time. There are precise criteria regarding the type of use, level of occupancy, and duration that need to be met. Additionally, the squatter holds the burden of proof when making an adverse possession claim in court.

South Carolina law requires 5, 10 or 20 years of continuous, hostile, open and actual possession depending on the circumstances. The squatter must occupy the real property of another without permission in an open, obvious and hostile manner throughout the entire statutory period. Mere occasional use is not enough to satisfy the requirement for continuous possession.

In addition, the squatter cannot have the owner's permission to use the property. The owner must receive notice that someone is occupying the land without consent. Once the statutory time period has elapsed, the squatter may be able to make an adverse possession claim in court to gain legal ownership of the property.

Requirements for Adverse Possession in SC

To successfully claim adverse possession in South Carolina, a squatter must meet all of the following requirements:

Continuous Possession

The squatter must reside on the property for the entire required statutory period without any gaps. This means physically occupying the land on a regular, ongoing basis as an average owner would. Even a short absence could disrupt the continuity.  

Open & Notorious Possession

The squatter's possession must be obvious and without any attempt to hide. They must use the land in an open way that would put a reasonable owner on notice. Things like making improvements, maintaining the property, and not hiding their presence demonstrate open and notorious possession.

Exclusive Possession 

The squatter must possess the land exclusively, without sharing possession with strangers, the public, or even the legal owner. Exclusive possession helps demonstrate the squatter's intention to claim ownership.

Hostile Possession

The squatter must possess the property in a hostile manner, without permission from the legal owner. Their occupation cannot originate from a lease or agreement with the owner. However, their possession does not need to be overly antagonistic or violent to be considered hostile.

Good Faith Belief of Ownership

The squatter must have a reasonable, genuine belief that they are the true owner of the property. They cannot take possession of a property while knowing it belongs to someone else. There must be some basis for their belief, even if it ends up being inaccurate or mistaken.

Timeframes for Adverse Possession in SC

The amount of time required for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim depends on whether they have "color of title" to the property. 

5 Years with Color of Title

If the squatter has color of title, meaning some legal document that appears to give them title to the property, they only need to occupy the land continuously for 5 years before they can claim ownership. Having color of title shortens the statutory period from 10 years down to 5.

10 Years Without Color of Title 

If the squatter does not have color of title, they must occupy the land openly, exclusively, continuously, hostilely, and notoriously for 10 years before they can claim adverse possession. 

20 Years for Public Land

There is a longer 20 year time period required for a squatter to claim adverse possession of public lands in South Carolina. This applies to any land owned by federal, state, county, or municipal governments.

The specific timeframes required can make a major difference in whether or not a squatter is able to successfully claim ownership of a property through adverse possession. Consult with a real estate attorney to understand how color of title and public vs private land classifications impact the time periods in your specific situation.

Color of Title in SC

Color of title refers to a document that appears to give the squatter the right to claim legal ownership of the property, even if the title has a defect or no actual valid claim. In South Carolina, color of title enables a squatter to claim adverse possession after only 5 years of continuous occupation, instead of the typical 10 years without color of title.  

Some examples of documents that can establish color of title in South Carolina include:

  • A deed, will, or other written instrument that contains some ambiguity or defect. This could be something like a faulty property description.
  • Tax records listing the squatter as the owner.
  • Receipts for property tax payments made by the squatter.
  • A lease agreement between the squatter and original owner, especially if the lease implies ownership rights.
  • A contract for purchasing the property.
  • Inheritance documents indicating the squatter was left the property, even if the actual owner is different.

Even invalid or faulty documents can give the squatter color of title if they reasonably appear to grant ownership rights. However, simple occupation without any documented claim does not qualify as color of title. 

Color of title is not necessary if the squatter lacks any kind of documentation but has occupied the property continuously for 10 years. In this situation, they can still potentially claim adverse possession without color of title. But having color of title makes the process faster and easier.

Maintaining Ownership Through Adverse Possession  

Once a squatter has occupied a property for the required statutory period, they must take certain steps to maintain ownership and claim full legal rights through adverse possession.  

Cannot Abandon the Property

If a squatter vacates the property for any significant length of time before acquiring adverse possession, it can break the continuous possession requirement. The abandonment of the property shows that the squatter did not intend to claim legal ownership. Even a vacancy period as short as a few months could potentially break continuity.  

To maintain continuous possession in South Carolina, the squatter must remain on the property for 10-20 years without any gaps. They cannot leave for weeks or months at a time - that would invalidate the claim to adverse possession. The property must be occupied and used actively, though temporary absences like vacations are generally permissible.

Must Pay Property Taxes 

In South Carolina, the squatter occupying the property must pay all due property taxes during the statutory period to maintain an adverse possession claim. Payment of taxes further demonstrates the intent to claim ownership. If the squatter fails to pay taxes, it weakens any claim to adverse possession.  

The payment of taxes also serves as an open, notorious act. By paying taxes on the property, the squatter puts the original legal owner and the public on notice that they intend to claim possession.

Making Improvements

Making improvements to the property can further strengthen an adverse possession claim in South Carolina. Improvements like additions, renovations, landscaping, and maintenance help satisfy the “open and notorious” requirement. It shows the squatter is investing time and money in the property with the intent to claim ownership.

However, improvements are not an absolute requirement. The continuous occupation itself serves as an open, notorious act. So adverse possession claims can potentially still succeed without improvements to the property. But any upgrades or maintenance completed will boost the claim.

Squatters vs. Trespassers

In South Carolina, there are important legal differences between squatters and trespassers. A squatter is someone who occupies a vacant property without permission from the owner. A trespasser enters property without permission, but does not try to live there or make use of the property.

The key distinction is that squatters intend to take over ownership of the property through adverse possession laws, while trespassers do not. Adverse possession requires continuous, open, notorious, and hostile occupation of a property for a certain timeframe (5-20 years depending on the circumstances). 

Trespassers can be removed relatively quickly with a police report or call to law enforcement. Squatters, on the other hand, can only be removed through the full legal eviction process, which takes time and requires the property owner to go to court.

If a squatter successfully completes the statutory period for adverse possession in South Carolina, they can file a lawsuit and claim legal ownership of the property. Trespassers have no such claim and can face criminal charges for being on the property illegally.

Property owners need to promptly identify if an unauthorized occupant is a squatter rather than a trespasser. This allows the owner to take the appropriate legal steps early on to avoid losing ownership through adverse possession. Consulting with a real estate attorney is recommended if a squatter situation is suspected.

Evicting Squatters in South Carolina

If you find squatters occupying your property in South Carolina, you will need to legally evict them in order to reclaim possession of your land. Here is an overview of the eviction process and tips for preventing squatters from returning:

In South Carolina, evicting squatters requires going through the formal court eviction process. This involves:

  • Serving the squatters with a written notice to vacate. This provides a deadline for them to leave the property, usually between 3-30 days depending on the circumstances.
  • Filing an eviction lawsuit in county court if the squatters do not leave by the deadline. 
  • Attending the court hearing where a judge will make a ruling on the eviction.
  • Hiring the county sheriff to forcibly remove the squatters if they still refuse to leave. The sheriff will supervise the eviction so things remain orderly and lawful.

It's important to follow all legal requirements for notice periods, court filings, and physical eviction. Self-evicting squatters through threats or force is illegal.

Coordinate with Law Enforcement

Contact your local law enforcement office and explain the squatter situation on your property. They can provide advice and assistance with filing reports, conducting investigations, serving eviction papers, and being present for the physical eviction to keep things calm and orderly. Having the sheriff involved prevents retaliation or complications.

Take Precautions Against Repeat Squatters 

Once the eviction is complete, take measures to prevent the same squatters from returning:

  • Change the locks on all doors and secure windows/openings. This guarantees the evicted squatters can't re-enter with their previous keys.
  • Install security alarms, cameras, motion sensor lights, and no trespassing signs so you can monitor for intruders. Make it clear the property is secured.
  • Hire a security guard to patrol the property during the first weeks after the eviction. Their presence deters squatters from trying to return.

With the proper eviction process and preventative precautions, squatters cannot reoccupy a property they've been legally removed from. Be sure to thoroughly secure the property afterwards.

Preventing Squatting

To avoid issues with squatters occupying your property in South Carolina, there are a few important preventative measures property owners can take:

Secure Vacant Property

  • Restrict access by locking doors, gates, and other entry points
  • Board up windows and other openings squatters could use 
  • Install fences, walls, or hedges around the perimeter
  • Post security cameras to monitor any trespassers

Conduct Regular Inspections

  • Personally inspect your property frequently, at least every couple of weeks
  • Look for signs of trespassing like cut locks, broken windows, debris 
  • Photograph the property to compare against previous visits
  • If you find squatters, take immediate legal action 

Post No Trespassing Signs

  • Place visible "No Trespassing" signs around the property
  • Make sure signs meet legal requirements for size, wording, placement
  • Signs establish your non-permission for anyone to be on the property
  • Record and report any trespassers to police

By restricting access, monitoring your property, and posting no trespassing signs, you can take proactive steps to prevent squatters from occupying your vacant property in South Carolina. But if you do find squatters present, be sure to take legal action right away.


Throughout this article, we have explored the nuances of South Carolina squatter’s rights and adverse possession laws. To recap, the main requirements for squatters to make an adverse possession claim include:

  • Continuous occupation and use of the property for 5-20 years depending on color of title 
  • Open and notorious use of the property as if they were the true owner
  • Exclusive use and possession of the property without permission
  • Paying property taxes (typically)

Squatters can gain strong legal rights if these conditions are met for the statutory period. On the other hand, property owners have protections as well. They can prevent squatting by conducting regular inspections, restricting access, and posting no trespassing signs. If squatters do occupy their property, owners have legal recourse through the eviction process. 

For property owners dealing with a squatting situation, it is advisable to consult with a local real estate attorney. Laws vary between municipalities, and an attorney can guide you through the proper legal procedures in your area. They can also provide tailored advice for your specific circumstances. Don't try to forcefully remove squatters yourself, as this can have serious legal consequences.

While adverse possession laws have existed for centuries, they remain controversial today. Some view them as a fair way for the landless to claim abandoned properties. Others see them as an injustice against property owners. Wherever you stand, understanding the nuances of squatters rights in your state is key to avoiding disputes.

This article has aimed to provide an overview of South Carolina's squatter and adverse possession laws. However, it should not be taken as formal legal advice. If you are dealing with a squatting situation, be sure to consult a local real estate attorney to protect your rights and interests. With knowledge and prompt action, property owners can prevent adverse possession claims and remove unwanted squatters through proper legal procedures.

Squatters Rights FAQs

Many people have questions about squatters rights and adverse possession laws in South Carolina. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions:

Are there squatter laws in South Carolina?

Yes, South Carolina has adverse possession laws that allow squatters to potentially gain legal ownership of a property after occupying it continuously for a certain period of time. The specific requirements depend on whether the squatter has color of title to the property.

How long before property is considered abandoned in South Carolina?

In South Carolina, property is typically considered abandoned after 5-20 years depending on the circumstances. If a squatter has color of title and has occupied the property continuously for 5-10 years, they may be able to claim adverse possession. Without color of title, continuous occupation for 10-20 years is typically required.  

How do I get rid of squatters in SC?

To remove squatters from a property in South Carolina, you must go through the legal eviction process. This involves filing an eviction lawsuit against the squatters, serving them with a notice to quit, and having a sheriff physically remove them from the premises if they do not leave voluntarily. You may also want to take precautions like changing locks to prevent squatters from returning.

What are the timeframes for adverse possession in SC?

In South Carolina, the timeframe to claim adverse possession is 5 years if the squatter has color of title. Without color of title, the required timeframe is 10 years of continuous occupation and use. The longest time frame is 20 years, which applies if the owner has paid taxes on the vacant property during the squatter's occupation.

Can the police remove squatters?

No, the police cannot remove squatters on behalf of a property owner in South Carolina. A court-ordered eviction is required. However, police may be able to arrest squatters for criminal trespassing if the owner has posted no trespassing signs or forbidden the squatters from being on the property.

What steps should I take if squatters are on my property?

First document the squatters' presence and post no trespassing signs if they are not already posted. Consult with a real estate attorney to understand your options. Finally, begin the eviction process by serving squatters with a notice to quit before filing a lawsuit to have them removed by the sheriff's department. Take precautions to prevent reentry after eviction.

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