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Squatter’s Right in California: What it Means and How it Works

Squatter's Right in California

In-depth knowledge of a squatter’s right in California could help you solve one of the biggest issues property owners face — squatters. First, let’s address the obvious question. 

Who is Considered a Squatter in California?

The term “squatter” refers to anyone that takes up residence in an unoccupied, abandoned, or foreclosed property. 

Squatting usually occurs without the property owner’s knowledge or permission. In other words, the squatter occupies the building or area of land without paying rent or lease to any landlord. 

Sounds like trespassing, right? Well, not exactly. 

The state of California handles trespassing as a criminal offense. Meanwhile, squatting is usually civil. 

While trespassers occupy a property without the owner’s permission, they don’t claim to have a right to the property. On the other hand, squatters establish residency when they receive mails, settle utility bills, and pay property tax. 

Now, here’s the problem. 

According to California law, a squatter can claim what is known as adverse possession. That means he or she can claim possession of a house after establishing residency for at least five years. 

Here’s how it works

Squatter’s Right in California: 5 Requirement for Adverse Possession Claim

In the United States, squatters can only make an adverse possession claim if the property occupancy meets these requirements. 

1. Hostile Claim

The word “hostile” here doesn’t mean aggressive. Instead, it could describe when the squatter occupies the land without knowing that it belongs to anyone. 

In other cases, the term “hostile” could describe an awareness of trespassing. That means that the squatter knows that they have no legal right to be on the property. 

Besides the two conditions above, a hostile claim can also result from a good-faith mistake. 

In such a case, the squatter occupied the house with an incorrect deed or invalid paperwork. As such, they were completely unaware of the property’s current legal status.

2. Actual Possession

As the name implies, an actual possession requires that the squatter physically possesses the property. Besides occupying the house, the squatter must treat the property as the owner would. These include: 

  • Paying property taxes
  • Making effort to beautify the premises
  • Openly coming and going through the front door
  • Paying bills associated with the property
  • Fixing up the property when necessary

Again, squatters in California must perform the duties above for at least five years to make a possession claim. 

3. Open and Notorious Possession

The terms “open and notorious” suggests that the squatter isn’t trying to conceal their occupancy. In other words, it should be fairly obvious to neighbors that a squatter lives in the house. 

That way, any property owner who makes minimal effort to investigate can quickly identify and evict the squatter. 

4. Exclusive Possession

The squatter’s occupancy must be exclusive to meet an adverse possession claim. That means, only the individual occupies the property, and they don’t share with other strangers, squatters, or the owner. 

5. Continuous Possession

With continuous possession, the squatter has to prove that they’ve occupied the property for an uninterrupted period. 

So, they can’t abandon the property and return for an adverse possession claim. In California, squatters have to occupy a property and maintain it for at least five continuous years. 

For previous tenants on the property, the five years only begins when their tenancy ends. 

As you can see, it’s possible to go from a squatter to a legal homeowner in California. And that raises the question of how to handle squatters in California. 

Squatter’s Right in California: Four Ways to Deal With Illegal Occupants

Image Credit: Tumisu / Pixabay.com

There are several options for property owners looking to deal with squatters in California. Here are some options. 

1. Pay the Squatter to Leave

The idea of paying squatters to leave your property may seem unappealing at first — and that’s understandable. However, the alternative is to engage in a lengthy legal battle that you may end up losing.  

Paying the squatters to leave is a more convenient option. Besides saving you valuable time, a payment could be the less pricey option. 

2. Disabled Property Owner

The state of California gives landowners with “disabilities” a longer period to reclaim their property from a squatter. 

The term legally “disabled” means that the landowner is underaged, and has inherited the property. It could also mean that landowner is suffering from health issues that make them incapable of making legal decisions. 

In both cases, the California landlord has up to 20 years — instead of five years — to prevent an adverse possession claim. However, the time to reclaim the property reduces to five years when the disability is removed — for example, the landowner comes of age. 

3. Rent the Property to the Squatter

Another clever way to handle squatters is to rent the property to them or give them written permission to occupy the land or house. 

Note that this method can be a double-edged sword for property owners. 

Yes, renting the property to the squatter can diffuse their adverse possession claim. However, it also makes it significantly more challenging to get rid of them. And that brings us to the final option. 

4. File an Eviction Notice

Consider getting rid of your squatter using an eviction notice. For example, you could serve a 3-day eviction notice. 

After that, you can quickly file an unlawful detainer suit with the court if the squatter doesn’t respond to the eviction notice. Note that it’s best to hire a lawyer or seek legal counsel for this aspect. 

The California court should schedule a hearing within 20 days if the squatter responds to the unlawful detainer suit. Otherwise, the court would forcefully remove squatters that don’t respond to the lawsuit. 

To Wrap Up: Protect Yourself From California Squatters

A squatter’s right in California is not exactly the same as other states in the U.S. However, the methods to protect yourself from squatters are the same. 

Consider inspecting your property regularly. Also, it’s best to secure the house by locking the entrances, doors, and windows. You could also put up a “No Trespassing” sign on unoccupied properties. 

Finally, file the appropriate notices in court as soon as you discover a squatter. 

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