While definitely a more rare occurrence, leaving a rental property vacant for extended periods of time does open the door to some other issues that may threaten the security and rentability of your investment property- squatters. Once a squatter moves into a vacant unit, it can be extremely difficult to evict them due to certain rights that may prevent you from removing them as quickly as I’m sure you’d like.
But first, let’s start by understanding what exactly a squatter is:
It may be a little different than you may think. In most cases, a squatter is defined as “an unauthorized tenant who refuses to vacate the premises”. In Colorado, however, squatting refers to “the occupation of an unused, abandoned, or foreclosed property without legal consent from the rightful owner”. The unlawful tenant is known as a squatter, and under certain extreme conditions, squatters can gain ownership of such properties.
Sometimes the squatters were once residents of said property, but willingly stayed despite the lapse of their lease agreement, otherwise known as holdover tenants. In these situations, things are a little different. If a tenant remains on a property after their lease has expired, it’s technically trespassing—unless they continue paying rent and the landlord accepts it, in which case they become a tenant at will.
It’s extremely important to notate here that there is a clear difference between “squatters” and “trespassers”. Simply put, the difference lies in whether or not the property is occupied, and whether or not the owner has explicitly told the squatters they’re unwelcome. For example, if a person stumbles across an empty property with no express indication they’re unwelcome there—such as no trespassing signage—then the pursuit to occupy the property becomes legally sanctioned.
In extreme cases, squatters might be able to claim actual ownership of your rental property through a process called adverse possession. While a terrifying concept on paper, there is often very little cause for concern, even if you do experience squatters. The reason being that, depending on the state, squatters must successfully occupy the property for anywhere from five to twenty years before adverse possession can be applied and requires a proof of continuous occupancy for the property to even be able to make an adverse possession claim. In Colorado specifically, the threshold is 18 years before a claim can be considered.
Beyond these timeline constraints, adverse possession also requires that squatters:
- Maintain Actual Possession of the Property:
- Otherwise known in some states as “active possession”, actual possession refers to the fact that the squatters themselves are physically residing in the property for the legally required amount of time. Oftentimes this is proven by documentation of property maintenance or home improvement costs completed by the squatters.
- Exclusive Possession of the Property:
- The squatter may not be sharing possession of the property with other tenants, owners or squatters. If a group of squatters attempted to claim adverse possession, it would likely not be accepted.
- Hostile Possession:
- Believe it or not, this does not indicate violence or force. In the case of adverse possession, hostile possession simply refers to the fact that the squatter’s occupation of the property is without express permission of the rightful owner. While this could include the cases where the trespasser is very aware that the property belongs to a different person, it also includes the cases of “good faith” where the individual may be unaware that their possession of the property is unlawful.
- Open and Notorious Possession:
- Known as “visible possession” in some states, the squatters must present a visible presence at the property. In other words, the squatter may not be hiding their occupations, especially those who may be making investigations into the property. If a squatter attempts to hide that they are living in the property, they may be unable to invoke their adverse possession claim.
So, what should you do if you have squatters?
The better question is actually what you should not be doing!
No matter what, do not inadvertently break the law trying to remove the squatters yourself. Cutting utilities to the property, intimidating the squatters by threats or violence, and forcing the squatter out by removing their belongings from the property will land you in more legal trouble rather than solving the issue, so just don’t do it!
Instead, here are some of the steps you can take to evict a squatter:
Some owners tend to avoid taking immediate steps to remove the squatters out of a hope they will move out on their own. However, it is recommended that you take action right away because the longer you allow them to stay, the harder it will be to evict them. Not to mention any damage that may be done to the property or valuables that may be stolen (including water heaters, copper plumbing, utilities or any other valuables that may not necessarily be your actual belongings).
Here are the steps you should take to legally remove a squatter from your rental property:
- Involve the Police:
- Do not take action and approach the squatters yourself- the inhabitants may be able to sue you if you decide to remove them yourself. Instead, utilize your local police force who will be able to determine if the unwanted inhabitants of your property are squatters, or trespassers. If they are trespassers, the police will be able to remove them immediately, however if they fall into the squatter category, they will be moved into the next stage where the issues will be resolved through legal action.
- Serve an Eviction Notice:
- Before taking any further legal action, you must serve an eviction notice to the squatters. There are different requirements between states as to what information must be provided in the eviction notice for it to be legally binding so be sure to do your research as to what must be included.
- File an Unlawful Detainer:
- If the squatters still haven’t vacated, you may then file an unlawful detainer which asks the court system to remedy the unwanted inhabitants. This will provide both yourself as the owner, and the squatters to present their claims and prove to the courts who has the right to maintain ownership of the home. It’s highly recommended you utilize the support of the Property Manager (if applicable) and an attorney for this stage of the process.
- Once the court declares a ruling in favor of the owner, they will provide documentation in the form of a final judgment to present to local authorities, allowing them to assist in having the squatter legally removed.
How can I avoid squatters and keep my property secure?
Squatter’s rights can protect unwanted individuals who take up residence in your home, so it’s highly beneficial to take some steps in order to protect your investment and keep these rights from applying.
- Visit the property often:
- When a property is vacant for any extended window of time, it presents the perfect opportunity for squatters and trespassers to break into your home and establish residence, sometimes without you even knowing. If you are aware you will be away from the property for things like vacations or military deployment, communicate with friends or neighbors so someone can keep an eye on your property. You may even consider allowing a neighbor to park in your driveway to give the impression that someone is home at the property.
- Secure the property:
- Make sure all doors and windows are securely locked at all times, and change out the locks each time a tenant moves out. Be sure also that all garbage bins, ladders, benches and outdoor furniture that may be used to access the property are securely stored away.
- Post signage:
- Posting a “no trespassing” sign not only communicates to squatters that their presence on your property is unwelcome, but also protects from adverse possessions claims.
- Pay property taxes on time:
- The payment of property taxes can quickly establish your rightful ownership and help combat adverse possessions claims as well.
- Make the property appear inhabited:
- A good way to do this is to have exterior lights or an interior light on a timer or motion sensor so that the property is not so obviously vacant from the road, especially during the evening hours. Some people will go as far as to have a friend or neighbor open and close blinds during the day, put trash cans out on the curb (even if empty) and check for mail or flyers by the front door to avoid signals of vacancy.
- Avoid extended vacancy periods:
- Good squatters will surveil an area for a period of time before taking up occupancy, so the shorter timeframe you keep the property uninhabited, the better chance you have of it going unnoticed but unwanted inhabitants.
This post is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be, nor is it, legal advice. In this regard, the reader should not construe or rely on this post as the writer providing any type or form of legal advice. All leases are different, and the reader’s lease may contain terms, conditions, clauses, or provisions that address one or more of the issues that are identified and discussed in this post. There may also statutes, ordinances, codes, rules, or regulations in the reader’s jurisdiction which address one or more of the issues that are identified in this post. Prior to taking any action with regards to matters that are identified and discussed in this post, the reader, in his/her/its sole discretion, should consult with his/her/its legal counsel, the property owner, and/or any other advisors of the reader’s own choosing.
We hope this was helpful! Do you have further questions about the legal process and handling of squatter situations? Please reach out and let us know and we’ll be happy to assist further! Email [email protected]