An Introduction to Squatters' Rights Laws in 2024

What are Squatters' Rights?

Squatters' rights, also known as adverse possession, refer to laws that allow a person occupying an abandoned or vacant property to potentially gain legal ownership of that property after a certain period of continuous occupation. 

A squatter is someone who moves into and lives in an unoccupied property without having any legal claim, rental agreement, or permission from the property owner. This differs from trespassing, where someone knowingly enters private property without permission but doesn't try to occupy or live there.

There are several reasons why people may turn to squatting:

  • To seek free housing when they cannot afford or find other living arrangements 
  • As a protest against unused investment properties sitting vacant 
  • Out of necessity when they have no other shelter options available
  • To clandestinely use a property for illegal activities like drug dealing or using abandoned buildings as clubhouses

The concept behind squatters' rights is that if a property owner neglects their property for a long period of time and doesn't take action to remove squatters, at some point the squatter gains the right to legal ownership through their continuous occupation and maintenance of the property. However, squatters' rights laws vary considerably by state.

History of Squatters' Rights in the US

Squatters' rights laws in the United States originated during the westward expansion in the 19th century. As settlers moved out west and occupied lands, the concept of "adverse possession" emerged in legal statutes as a way to gain ownership over unoccupied properties through continuous habitation and improvement of the land. 

These early squatter's rights laws were intended to encourage settlement in western states by allowing people to gain title to lands that were not being used. Some of the earliest adverse possession laws were enacted in states like California, Texas and Oklahoma as they were rapidly settled during the 1840s-1890s.

Over time, state laws regarding squatters' rights have evolved and changed. Some states have strengthened protections for property owners against unwanted squatters. Other states still maintain strong squatter's rights laws that make it possible for squatters to gain ownership of properties they continuously occupy without permission.

Several court cases over the years have helped define squatters' rights laws on a state-by-state basis. For example, in 1985 the high-profile case of Belanco v. Urban in New Jersey established that squatters needed to prove they paid property taxes in order to make an adverse possession claim. Other cases like Woodland v. Woodland in Massachusetts (2009) have challenged the constitutionality of squatter's rights.

Though specifics vary by state, most squatters' rights laws require continuous habitation of 10-30 years before ownership rights can be obtained. And acts of improvement or maintenance to the property are usually also required to prove adverse possession claims in court.

Squatters' Rights Laws By State

Squatters' rights laws, also known as adverse possession laws, vary widely across the United States. Some states have very strong squatters' rights protections, while other states have moved to limit or eliminate squatters' rights. Here's an overview of how squatters' rights work in each state:

States With Strong Squatters' Rights Laws


Squatters can claim ownership after 5 years of continuous occupation. The property must be maintained and taxes paid to make an adverse possession claim. 


After 20 years of continuous possession, squatters can file a quiet title lawsuit to claim legal ownership. Squatters must maintain the property as their own during this time.

New York

10 years of exclusive, continuous use allows a squatter to make an adverse possession claim for ownership. The squatter must also pay property taxes during this time. 

States With Moderate Squatters' Rights Laws


Squatters must occupy a property for 10 years before claiming adverse possession. The occupation must be hostile, open, and notorious. Property taxes must be paid by the squatter.


After 10 years of hostile, open, and continuous possession, squatters can claim legal ownership through adverse possession. Property maintenance is required.


20 years of hostile, actual, visible, open and notorious possession allows a squatter to make an adverse possession claim.

States With Weak or No Squatters' Rights


Squatters' rights were essentially abolished in 2008. Adverse possession claims now require written documentation of title.


Squatters' rights claims were limited to 5 years in 2006. Continuous payment of property taxes is also now required.

South Dakota

As of 2017, squatters in South Dakota cannot make claims based on adverse possession. 

North Carolina

Adverse possession claims now require "color of title" - some documented, good faith claim to the property.

The strength of squatters' rights laws also depends on the interpretation and precedent set by court rulings in each state. Property owners should research specific requirements in their state.

Removing Squatters from a Property

Removing squatters from a property can be a challenging process for property owners. Legally, squatters have rights and require formal eviction even if they don't have permission to live on the property. Here's what property owners need to know about the eviction process:

To legally remove squatters, property owners must follow formal eviction protocols which vary by state. This involves filing an eviction lawsuit and getting a court order for the squatters to vacate. The eviction lawsuit notifies the squatters they are being removed and starts the countdown for when they must leave, typically within 1-2 weeks. If squatters don't leave by the court-ordered date, the property owner can request law enforcement to remove them.

The eviction process involves paperwork, court dates, and waiting periods. Property owners should consult a real estate attorney to ensure proper procedures are followed. Rushing through eviction without a court order can jeopardize the owner's case and cause the process to start over. Patience is required.

Using Law Enforcement  

Police can be called to remove squatters once a valid court order is obtained. At that point, squatters are trespassing if they refuse to leave. Police can escort squatters while they remove their belongings. If squatters refuse to comply with police, they may be arrested for trespassing.

It's recommended owners have a copy of the court order available and ask police to stand by during the actual eviction. The presence of law enforcement helps reinforce the gravity of the court order if squatters resist vacating the property.

Owner Precautions

Property owners should take precautions when interacting directly with squatters they are trying to evict. Confrontations over eviction can become heated. It's best to communicate through official legal channels rather than face-to-face interactions. Video recording devices can help document exchanges in case legal issues arise.

Owners should never attempt to forcefully remove squatters on their own, change locks, or shut off utilities to drive squatters out faster. Not only can this lead to injuries or legal problems, it can delay the formal eviction process. The proper legal procedures, while frustrating, are still the fastest way to regain control of a property.

With patience and by following proper legal protocols, property owners can successfully evict problematic squatters from their properties. Consulting a real estate attorney is key to ensure the process goes smoothly.

Preventing Squatters

Property owners can take steps to prevent squatters from occupying their properties in the first place. Here are some tips:

Monitor your property regularly:

Make frequent visits to check for any signs of trespassing or forced entry. If you have a vacant property, consider hiring a house sitter or property manager to check on it periodically. Install security cameras to monitor activity.

Secure entry points:

Make sure all doors and windows are locked. Board up or repair any broken windows, doors, or other access points a squatter could use. Install fences, gates, and no trespassing signs.

Work with law enforcement:

Develop a relationship with local police and report all incidents of trespassing immediately. Give police current emergency contact info so they can reach you if any issues arise. Consider hiring security guards to patrol the property.

Post no trespassing signs:

Clearly post no trespassing signs around the property. In some states, this is a legal requirement before police can arrest trespassers. Signs create a paper trail showing you made efforts to deter trespassing.

Make the property seem occupied:

Have mail and packages delivered regularly. Keep the lawn maintained and shovel snow in winter. Consider installing lighting timers. Store non-valuable items like furniture inside.

Check with tenants before vacating:

If you plan to vacate a rented property, check local laws on proper notice before ending a lease. Give tenants sufficient warning before showing up to reclaim your property.

Address code violations:

Make sure the property meets all safety and maintenance codes. Squatters target run-down properties in disrepair. Keep the property in good shape.

Spread crushed stone:

Place a layer of crushed stone around building foundations. The noisy surface deters trespassers from approaching undetected. 

Consult an attorney:

Have a lawyer review your case if you suspect squatters are present or you need to take legal action to reclaim your property. They can provide guidance on proper procedures.

Taking preventative measures can help deter squatters from ever occupying your property. But if trespassers do gain access, take action right away to remove them through proper legal channels.

Financial Impact of Squatters

Dealing with squatters can have significant financial costs for property owners. One major expense is the legal process required to evict squatters, which can be lengthy and expensive. In some states, squatters can prolong the eviction process for months as they attempt to claim adverse possession. Property owners may need to hire lawyers to navigate the legal system, file paperwork, and attend court hearings to have squatters removed. These legal fees can easily total thousands of dollars.

In addition to legal costs, property owners are often stuck paying for damages caused by squatters during their occupation. Squatters frequently neglect maintenance and repairs on a property. Things like leaky roofs, broken windows, and faulty plumbing may go unaddressed. Squatters may also actively vandalize the property by knocking down walls, tearing up floors, or destroying appliances and fixtures. The property owner will be responsible for all of these repairs after the squatters are gone.

Securing a property against squatters in the first place also requires an investment. Property owners need to regularly check on vacant properties, change locks, board up access points, post no trespassing signs, and take other measures to prevent squatting. Installing security systems, fences, lights and other security measures can also be costly. But these precautions are often necessary to keep squatters out of properties between tenants. Overall, the financial burden of dealing with squatters can be significant for property owners.

Safety Issues with Squatters

Dealing with squatters can create dangerous situations and safety concerns for property owners. Confrontations may arise when owners try to evict or remove squatters from the properties, especially if the squatters believe they have valid claims and resist leaving. These confrontations can become heated and escalate to violence in some cases. 

Squatters may also engage in criminal activities within the properties they occupy. In vacant homes or buildings, there is little oversight and squatters can use the spaces for illegal purposes without the owner's knowledge. This can increase crime rates and threaten safety in the surrounding neighborhoods. Neighbors may be hesitant to report issues out of fear of retaliation from the squatters.

For property owners, it can be extremely difficult to monitor vacant properties for squatters, especially if the buildings are remote or isolated. Owners may only discover squatters once they have already taken up residence and established themselves, making removal much more challenging both legally and safely. Overall, the presence of squatters creates risks and owners can feel threatened when trying to assert their property rights. Advanced precautions need to be taken by owners to remove squatters in the safest manner possible.

Government Response to Squatting Issues

Squatting poses unique challenges for local governments and law enforcement agencies. Enforcing laws against trespassing and illegal occupation of properties can be difficult, especially when properties appear abandoned or neglected. Police may be reluctant to get involved in what are essentially civil property disputes between owners and squatters.  

Many local governments struggle with outdated squatter eviction laws that favor lengthy notification processes over swift action. As a result, some states have passed new legislation to streamline and strengthen the squatter removal process. For example, in 2021 Florida enacted a new law allowing property owners to remove squatters in as little as 48 hours with proper written notice. 

Governments are also taking steps to provide more resources to property owners dealing with squatters. Some police departments have established special units focused on monitoring vacant properties and addressing squatting reports quickly. Several cities now require mortgage lenders to register defaulted properties, so they can be tracked for illegal occupation. 

Nonprofits and legal aid services can also help owners understand the eviction process and expedite court procedures. Housing agencies may even pay rental assistance to squatters to encourage them to leave without further legal action. While squatting remains an intractable issue, government responsiveness is improving through better laws, faster enforcement, and support services for affected property owners.

Squatters' Rights and Rental Laws

Squatters' rights differ significantly from the rights and responsibilities that come with renting or leasing a property. Renters and tenants have a contractual agreement with the property owner that gives them the right to occupy the property in exchange for paying rent. Squatters have no such agreement and occupy the property without the owner's permission.

There are a few key differences between squatters and tenants:

Tenants pay rent, squatters do not.

Renters are required to pay rent and follow the terms of a lease agreement. Squatters move into a property without the owner's consent and don't pay any rent or mortgage.

A lease or rental agreement gives tenants a legal right to live on the property that is enforceable in court. Squatters have no legal right to occupy the property initially.

Tenants can't be immediately removed, squatters can.

Landlords must go through a formal eviction process to remove tenants who violate their lease. Squatters have no lease protections and can be immediately removed and arrested for trespassing if found on the property.

Tenants maintain the property, squatters often don't.

Tenants are obligated to properly maintain the property as outlined in their lease agreement. Squatters often fail to maintain the properties they occupy without permission.

There can be some intersection between squatting and rental/foreclosure laws in certain situations:

  • If a property is foreclosed on and the tenants' lease predates the foreclosure, the tenants may have the right to remain on the property until their lease ends. 
  • In some states, squatters can try to claim "tenant at sufferance" status to delay eviction. This argues they have established tenancy even without a lease or rental agreement.
  • Squatters sometimes attempt to pay token "rent" after being discovered to argue they are now tenants. This is often just a delay tactic and does not override their illegal occupation.

Overall, while squatters may try to utilize rental laws to avoid immediate eviction, they lack any underlying lease agreement or legal right to remain on the property. Property owners should work with local law enforcement and legal counsel to remove squatters, not treat them like legal tenants.

Alternatives to Squatters' Rights Laws

While adverse possession is the most common legal process associated with squatters' rights, there are alternatives property owners can consider besides lengthy eviction procedures.

One option is to offer the squatter cash in exchange for leaving the property quickly and voluntarily. This can be cheaper and faster than a formal eviction, which requires filing paperwork and going through the court system. However, some squatters may ask for outrageously high amounts, so property owners need to assess if it's a reasonable deal. There's also no guarantee the squatter will keep their word and move out after receiving payment.  

In certain circumstances, property owners may be able to file a trespassing claim with local law enforcement instead of an eviction proceeding. If the squatter has clearly broken into the property or has no reasonable claim to live there, police may assist in removing them more rapidly. However, police tend to avoid getting involved in complex property disputes.

Ultimately, adverse possession laws remain the main framework around squatters' rights in most states. But thinking creatively about faster resolutions can help property owners regain access to their properties quicker. Seeking legal counsel to understand all options is also recommended when dealing with squatters.

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