How To Protect Your Real Estate From the Squatter Crisis

Photo of a row of homes in a residential district in downtown Niagara Falls, New York State, USA during Autumn.
Arpad Benedek / Getty Images

Investing in real estate can provide relatively passive income in retirement or to help you build wealth while you are working. However, being a landlord can come with some headaches you might not imagine.

For instance, if someone moves into your vacant property while you are fixing it up for re-sale or are looking for tenants, it might not be so easy to remove them. This can also happen if you’ve recently inherited a property and no one is living there, a situation recently reported by Fox News in which Darthula Young of Chicago claimed a “professional squatter” moved into her mother’s property after her mother died.

Squatters may be hard to prevent, so it’s important to know the steps to take if people move into your empty home.

Call Law Enforcement Immediately

Before you approach the squatters, call the police. The police can make a report and be present when you ask the squatter to leave. This helps protect you from assault or violence, and provides legal evidence that you are taking action.

Sometimes, having the cops show up will be enough to get the squatter to vacate the property. But, squatters often understand their rights and know they don’t have to legally leave at this point. That’s because squatting is different than trespassing. Squatters enter a property with the intention of staying long-term.

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Know Your Rights — and the Squatter’s Rights

State rights differ in regard to squatters. You may not legally be permitted to remove the squatter’s belongings from your property. You also may not be allowed to turn off utilities to make it uncomfortable for the squatters to stay. It’s important to know what your state’s laws are so you don’t get into any trouble.

If the squatter won’t leave immediately, the police may not be able to remove them either. You’ll have to file a formal eviction notice and take the matter to court.

Hire a Property Lawyer

If you have to go to court, make sure to have a lawyer familiar with landlord and squatter’s rights to represent you in court. You’ll want to gather any paperwork to show proof of ownership, including property tax bills, utilities bills, mortgage payments and your deed and title.

Know the Types of Squatters

Not every squatter is an unemployed vagrant seeking shelter who comes in off the street and finds your home an easy target. Squatters come in many forms. Some may even maintain the property and pay the property taxes and utility bills. If the squatters are treating your real estate as their home, it can become more difficult to have them evicted.  

Sometimes, landlords will face squatters who used to be tenants. They refuse to leave after the lease expired or they stopped paying rent but continue to live in the home.

Squatters may also be people you know, such as friends and family, who you allow to live in your house temporarily. If they refuse to leave when asked, they become squatters.

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Attorney Jim Burling told Fox News Digital that property owners who leave a house vacant after a death in the family have become a common target for squatters. Burling said potential squatters search title records to find homes that have become vacant and then take possession of them.

Take Steps To Prevent Squatters

Hook up a video doorbell and put security cameras across your property as a deterrent. You can also install an alarm system to detect and report intruders. Check into the property frequently. A squatter is more likely to choose a home that’s left unmonitored.

If you’ve recently purchased or inherited a home, change the locks immediately. You never know who might have copies of the keys. Also, make sure all doors and windows are locked and are in good condition to prevent break-ins.

If you discover a squatter, act immediately. The longer the person or people stay in your house, the harder it will be to evict them. Most states have a law called “adverse possession.” That means if someone has been living in a home for a certain length of time — typically longer than five years — the court will grant them ownership of the property.

If the squatters are paying the property taxes, they could also make a legal case of ownership of the property, so make sure you stay up to date on tax payments. Finally, invest in landlord’s insurance to cover damage to the home while squatters are living there or if they damage the property before they leave.

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