Washington Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

What are Squatters’ Rights in Washington?

In Washington state, squatters can potentially gain legal ownership of a property through a legal principle called "adverse possession." Adverse possession allows a person occupying someone else's property without permission to potentially gain legal ownership after a certain time period.

In Washington, the time period squatters must live on a property to make an adverse possession claim is typically between 7-10 years. However, the squatter must meet several specific requirements during this time:

  • The occupation must be hostile - meaning without the owner's permission. Squatters must occupy the property knowing they don’t have any legal claim to be there.
  • The occupation must be actual - squatters must physically live on the property. Occasional visits or short stays do not qualify.
  • The occupation must be open & notorious - it must be obvious to any casual observer that someone is squatting there.
  • The occupation must be exclusive - squatters must possess the property as if it were their own. Sharing possession with the owner disqualifies a squatter’s claim.
  • The occupation must be continuous - squatters cannot leave for long periods of time, there can be no gaps in their possession.

Only if squatters meet all of these requirements, without being removed by authorities, for the statutory period of 7-10 years, can they make an adverse possession claim in Washington.

Who is Considered a Squatter in Washington?

In the state of Washington, a squatter can be defined as someone occupying a residential or commercial property without the permission of the owner. This could include:

  • A trespasser who initially enters the property without consent, but then refuses to leave when instructed to do so by the owner or authorities. They may believe they have established tenant's rights, but are still considered a squatter if they lack a rental agreement or permission from the owner.
  • A tenant or former tenant who remains on the property after their lease or rental agreement has ended. In this case, they may have initially had lawful permission to occupy the unit, but are now staying without the owner's consent. Their previous status as a legal tenant does not entitle them to remain on the property indefinitely.
  • Anyone who moves into a vacant or abandoned property without any formal agreement with the property owner. They have no legal right to live on the premises without the owner's permission.

The key defining factor is a lack of consent from the actual property owner to inhabit the property. Simply living in or using an empty house or building does not make someone a legal resident if they did not receive permission from the owner.

For squatters to gain legal ownership of a property they are occupying in Washington, they must meet specific requirements related to adverse possession. Adverse possession is a legal principle that allows a person occupying someone else's property to potentially claim legal ownership after a set period of continuous possession. 

In Washington, for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim, they must occupy the property openly, exclusively, hostilely, and continuously for 10 years. This means:

  • The squatter must physically occupy and live on the property for the full 10 year period. Occasional or intermittent use does not qualify.
  • The occupation must be obvious and overt, not concealed or clandestine. 
  • The squatter must exclude all others from using the property, including the legal owner.
  • The occupation must be "hostile", meaning it is done without the legal owner's permission.

The squatter must meet all these requirements for the entire 10 year period before they can file a lawsuit to claim legal ownership of the property via adverse possession. The court may also consider whether the squatter paid property taxes on the land during this time.

Simply squatting on a property or being a trespasser does not immediately grant ownership rights - the continuous, open requirements over 10 years must be satisfied. Property owners do have legal recourse to remove squatters before the 10 year timeline passes and any adverse possession claims can be made.

How to Remove Squatters from Your Property

If you find squatters occupying your Washington property without your permission, you will need to take legal action to remove them. Here are some steps:

Eviction Process

To legally remove squatters, you will need to go through the formal eviction process. This involves:

  • Serving the squatters with a written notice to vacate. The notice should provide a specific date by which they must leave, usually 3-30 days depending on the circumstances.
  • If they don't leave by the deadline, you can file a lawsuit against them in court to evict them. You will need to prove you are the legal property owner and they are unlawfully occupying the premises.
  • The court will schedule a hearing and issue an eviction order if you win. The order will instruct the sheriff's department to remove the squatters if they don't vacate by the specified date.
  • If the squatters don't comply with the eviction order, the sheriff will visit the property and forcibly remove them. Their possessions will also be removed from the property.

Police Assistance 

You can call the local police department to report criminal trespassing if the squatters are uncooperative about leaving. However, the police may not physically remove or arrest them immediately if they claim "squatter's rights" to stay in the property.

Ultimately the police can only remove the squatters after you have gone through the complete eviction lawsuit process and obtained a court-ordered eviction notice. With the court order in hand, the police can arrest any squatters for criminal trespassing if they refuse to leave.

Serving Squatters with a Notice to Vacate

In Washington state, property owners must serve squatters with a proper notice to vacate before beginning the eviction process. The requirements for this notice are:

  • The notice must be in writing. Verbal notice is not sufficient.
  • The notice must state the property address.
  • It must request that the squatters vacate the premises within a certain timeframe, typically 3 days. 
  • The notice must clearly state that the squatters do not have permission to occupy the property.
  • The notice should provide contact information for the property owner or manager.
  • It must be served to each individual squatter. Posting on the door is not adequate.
  • The notice must be delivered in person and a copy mailed via certified mail with return receipt. This provides proof of service.
  • If the squatters fail to comply with the notice to vacate, the property owner can then file a lawsuit to evict them.

The proper notice provides a paper trail showing that the owner has requested the squatters leave before resorting to formal eviction. It is an important step in removing unwanted squatters from a property in Washington.

Filing a Lawsuit to Evict Squatters

If a squatter refuses to leave after receiving a proper notice to vacate, the next step is for the property owner to file a lawsuit to evict the squatter. This process is similar to evicting a tenant for nonpayment of rent. 

To start the eviction lawsuit, the property owner will need to file a complaint in the district court in the county where the property is located. The complaint should name each squatter as a defendant and state the legal grounds for eviction, such as criminal trespass or unlawful detainer.

The property owner will need to pay a fee to file the eviction lawsuit, typically between $100-$200 depending on the county. There may also be additional court costs involved in serving the lawsuit on the squatters. 

Once the complaint is filed and properly served, the court will schedule a hearing where both sides can present evidence related to the eviction. If the judge rules in favor of the property owner, the court will issue a writ of restitution ordering the squatters to vacate the property. The county sheriff can assist in removing the squatters if they refuse to leave voluntarily.

The entire eviction lawsuit process usually takes 2-3 weeks provided there are no delays or appeals. Having the proper documentation such as notices and police reports will help demonstrate to the court that all lawful procedures were followed before filing the eviction case.

Using Police to Remove Criminal Trespassers

In some cases, the police can intervene to remove squatters from a property in Washington. This typically occurs when the squatters are committing criminal trespassing. 

In Washington, criminal trespassing occurs when someone knowingly enters or remains unlawfully on private property. Signs warning against trespassing must be clearly posted for this law to be applied. 

If squatters have set up camp on a property or are occupying a home or building without the owner's permission and no trespassing signs are posted, the owner can call the local police department to report criminal trespass. The police will usually inform the squatters that they are trespassing and need to leave the premises immediately.

If the squatters refuse to comply, they can be arrested for criminal trespassing under RCW 9A.52.070 and RCW 9A.52.080. The owner does not need to serve the squatters with any notice or go through a formal eviction process for police to intervene. The squatters are simply committing a crime by trespassing and refusing to leave when informed they are not welcome on the property.

Having no trespassing signs, locking gates/doors, and reporting criminal trespass to police in a timely manner are the fastest ways for a property owner to remove unwanted squatters in Washington, without having to go through a lengthy formal eviction process.

Squatter evictions in Washington typically take anywhere from 3-6 weeks. The exact timeline will depend on a few factors:

  • Notice to Vacate: Once the property owner discovers squatters on their land, they need to serve a written Notice to Vacate. This gives the squatters a certain number of days to leave the property (typically 3-30 days). 
  • Filing the Lawsuit: If the squatters do not leave after the Notice period expires, the property owner can file an eviction lawsuit against them. The court summons gives the squatters another opportunity (typically 5-30 days) to respond and leave before further legal action.
  • Court Hearing and Judgment: If the squatters contest the eviction, there will be a court hearing where a judge hears both sides and issues a judgment. If the judgment favors the property owner, it will order the squatters to vacate.
  • Removal by Sheriff: If the squatters still refuse to leave willingly, the county sheriff can forcibly remove them. This can occur as soon as a few days after the court judgment or up to a couple weeks.
  • Actual Move Out: Once the sheriff performs the lockout and removal, the squatters have just 1-2 days to take their belongings and vacate the property completely. 

So the full squatter eviction process can take 3-6 weeks depending on how quickly each step occurs and whether the squatters contest and draw things out. Property owners should act swiftly to have the best chance of regaining their land as soon as possible.

Penalties for Squatting in Washington 

Squatting on someone else's property without their permission can result in criminal charges in Washington. While squatting itself is not a specific crime, squatters may face charges like criminal trespass, breaking and entering, or malicious mischief.

Criminal trespass in the first degree is a gross misdemeanor offense in Washington. It involves knowingly entering or remaining unlawfully in a building. First degree criminal trespass carries up to 364 days in jail and fines up to $5,000. Refusing to leave a property after being warned by police is considered unlawful remaining.

If a squatter damages locks or breaks into a property, they could potentially be charged with burglary or malicious mischief. Burglary charges depend on the severity and range from a gross misdemeanor to a class B felony. Malicious mischief ranges from a misdemeanor to class B felony depending on the extent of damage.

In addition to fines and jail time, those convicted of squatting-related crimes may face other penalties like probation or community service. Squatters who repeatedly trespass and damage properties may face harsher punishments due to being repeat offenders.

Property owners should involve police as soon as possible when squatters refuse to leave voluntarily. Pressing charges ensures a record of criminal behavior, which can help during any potential civil litigation like eviction proceedings.

How to Prevent Squatting on Your Property

There are several measures property owners can take to prevent unwanted squatters from occupying their land or buildings in Washington:

Monitor your property regularly

Frequently checking your property for any signs of trespassing or squatting is the best way to catch potential squatters early. Look for lights, movement, or sounds coming from the building. Also check for any damage or forceful entry.

Secure all access points

Make sure all doors, windows, attics, basements, garages, and other entryways are locked and secured. Install high-quality locks if necessary. Board up any broken windows or holes in the walls. This will make it much harder for squatters to unlawfully enter and occupy your property.

Post "No Trespassing" signs

Placing visible signage around the perimeter of your property establishes clear boundaries and makes it harder for squatters to argue they didn't know it was private property. 

Ask neighbors to help monitor

Inform your neighbors of periods when you will be away from your property for extended times. Request that they keep an eye out for any potential squatters and report any suspicious activity to you or the police.

Install a security system

Surveillance cameras, motion sensor lights, and alarm systems can all help deter potential squatters and alert you to any unauthorized activities on your property. Make sure systems are functioning and recordings are monitored.

Taking preventative measures is the best way to avoid dealing with the burden of removing unwanted squatters from your property. Be vigilant and take proactive steps to secure your land and buildings.

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