Unfortunately, empty or abandoned properties often attract squatters. Getting rid of these undesirable occupants can be costly and time-consuming, but it’s crucial to go through the proper legal channels since squatters have rights.
Read on to learn all about squatters and the eviction process.
Evicting a Squatter
Eviction refers to a legal process in which a court orders a person to leave a property. Even though squatters aren’t the rightful owners of a property, occupying it gives them a few rights.
These rights include receiving a written eviction notice before displacement. Occupants can also claim adverse possession if they stay on the property long enough. Thankfully, squatters need to occupy a property for years before they can legally claim it. There is plenty of time to take action and get them evicted.
Note that eviction isn’t the only possible outcome. In some cases, it might be possible to negotiate with the occupants and get them to pay rent.
Squatters Vs. Trespassers – What’s the Difference?
Trespassing and squatting might seem similar, but there are some key legal distinctions:
- A trespasser is someone who gained access to your property, often to steal or degrade it. Trespassing is a serious criminal offense.
- A squatter is different because this person occupies your property for an extended length of time. Even though these individuals are occupying your real estate property without consent, they have a legal right.
- Note that squatters are often holdover tenants who stop paying rent or return to a rental property after finding themselves without a place to go.
Squatters Rights and Laws
Squatting in itself isn’t illegal. Squatters can actually become the rightful owners of a property if they file an adverse possession claim since the physical act of occupying a property for a period of time gives them rights.
In Pennsylvania, adverse possession laws allow a squatter to become a legal property owner if they occupied it for at least 21 years. They have to meet a few additional requirements, such as paying property taxes, keeping up with property management, and meeting continuous possession requirements by not leaving the property for an extended amount of time.
However, a squatter must prove that they occupied a vacant property in good faith to claim ownership after 21 years.
There are steps you can take to protect yourself under landlord-tenant laws:
- Posting no trespassing signs indicates that you don’t want anyone on the property. Unwanted occupants won’t be able to say they occupied your property in good faith if you make it clear you don’t consent to their presence.
- As a landlord, you can avoid dealing with holdover tenants and squatters by screening for quality tenants. Add a clause in your rental agreement stating that tenants can’t return to the property after moving out.
- If you have an empty home, use a security system to keep an eye on it. It can deter squatters, and you’ll notice their presence faster.
- Changing the locks after a tenant moves out can prevent them from returning, especially if you had to evict them or if they left on bad terms.
- An empty home can attract an unauthorized occupant. If you have a private property you don’t use, consider reaching out to cash home buyers in Philadelphia and nearby areas to sell your property.
How to Evict a Squatter
There are steps you can take to evict an unwanted occupant while respecting squatters’ rights in PA.
Calling the Police
One of the first steps you can take is to contact the local police. Police can’t physically remove the squatters yet since they have a potential claim to legal ownership.
However, a visit from a local police officer can be a strong deterrent. Police can issue a verbal warning and let the squatters know they are not welcome. In some cases, the occupants will leave as soon as the police get involved.
Plus, confronting squatters yourself isn’t safe. It’s best to have the police mediate in this situation.
Serving Evictions Notices to Squatters
You need to formally ask squatters to leave by issuing a written notice. If you’re dealing with a holdover renter, Pennsylvania laws give you the right to issue a ten-day notice of eviction if the tenant is a day late with rent.
If a squatter is attempting to take actual possession of a property, you can issue a written notice as soon as you find out about their presence since you never gave consent for them to occupy your property.
The notice must ask the recipient to move out and list fees like unpaid rent and late fees. Note that you can’t serve the notice yourself. You’ll have to contact law enforcement and ask an officer to serve the notice on your behalf.
Filing Lawsuits Against Squatters
If the written notice didn’t deter the squatters, your next step is to file a civil claim lawsuit. You can seek legal advice for this step and get a lawyer to help you file the lawsuit.
You can also file the lawsuit yourself ten days after issuing the written notice:
- Go to your local magisterial district court and fill out a civil complaint form.
- Indicate your identity and the identity of the squatters if you know it.
- Write a brief statement describing the situation.
- Pay a filing fee.
The court will then schedule a civil matter hearing to discuss possession of the property. The squatters will receive a copy of the complaint and hearing date via certified mail or law enforcement.
You should bring additional documents to the hearing, such as the lease agreement you signed in the first place with your holdover tenant and a copy of the eviction notice. You should also bring the deed to the property to show you are the legal owner. You can ask witnesses to testify.
The squatters have a right to attend the hearing with a lawyer to defend their interests, but they rarely do.
The judge will issue a ruling and give you an order of possession. This document will help you regain possession of your property.
The outcome of a squatting or unlawful detainer lawsuit is usually clear-cut. As the original property owner, you should be able to produce the original deed for the property to show you are the rightful owner.
Having a Squatter Removed
Receiving a notice of hearing might be enough to convince squatters to move out. If the squatters decide to stay on your property after the hearing, you can go to law enforcement with your writ of possession or order of possession signed by a judge.
This document will state that you are the rightful owner of the property and that the other party is occupying it illegally. Once you have this document, squatters’ rights no longer apply, and the occupants are now trespassing.
Police can visit the property and arrest the occupants for trespassing or illegal occupancy. The arrest can result in fines, criminal charges, and jail time.
What You Can’t Do When Removing a Squatter
Before you evict squatters, it’s crucial to learn more about what you can and can’t do. Squatters have rights under federal and state laws. You should also learn more about the local law. Get help from a lawyer if you have doubts about what you can legally do in this situation.
If you do something illegal when attempting to evict a squatter, this person can file a lawsuit against you. You might end up with hefty fines and experience delays in your civil claim lawsuit if you break the law when dealing with the squatters.
Here are a few examples of things you can’t do:
- You can’t evict anyone without a written notice. A verbal notice isn’t sufficient.
- You can’t verbally or physically threaten the squatters. In fact, it’s best not to visit the property in person and let the police handle the situation.
- It’s illegal to take the squatters’ belongings or damage them. Even if the occupants leave personal property behind, you might have to keep these items for a while.
- You can’t shut off utilities or change the locks on the doors. Since the squatters are contesting your ownership of the property, it’s best not to make any changes to it.
- Even though there are options available if you want to sell a house fast in Pennsylvania, you can’t sell the property as long as you have knowledge of squatters occupying it.
Unfortunately, vacancies and abandoned homes can attract squatters. Regaining control of your property can take time, and dealing with the aftermath can be costly and stressful.
Squatters might cause deliberate damage to the property, and you might worry they will return. We can help! We buy houses in Chester and other nearby areas regardless of their condition. You won’t have to worry about repairing damages before putting your home on the market, and we’ll make you a fair cash offer to speed up the process of selling your home.
Are you wondering how much you can get for your old vacant property or for a rental property damaged by squatters? Take a look at our case study to learn more.