While there are lease agreements that tenants will typically establish with a property owner, a squatter moves in with no discussion. This usually happens because it's a vacant property.
You may think that this is no different from trespassing, but New Jersey law will tell you that this is sometimes legal.
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Now, let’s dive in.
Before getting into the swing of things, it's essential to identify who qualifies as a squatter. Once the person in question decides to occupy a foreclosed, unoccupied, or abandoned property without legal ownership or permission, then this person falls under the squatter category.
In other words, such a person has no right to be physically present on the property though the decision has been taken to do so.
You would think that such a thing is very uncommon given the circumstances that would be necessary for squatting to be at play. On the contrary, squatting is pretty common in the United States of America.
Squatting vs. Trespassing
Since there's no permission given by the legal owner of the property, shouldn't the act of squatting fall under the category of trespassing?
That's a valid question since both see people in places they have no right to be. One major difference is how the two are handled. Squatting falls under the civil umbrella, while trespassing is along the lines of a criminal offense.
Note, however, that a property owner, by establishing that a squatter should not be on the property and isn't welcome, can get the matter treated as a criminal offense.
Here are a couple of insights to keep in mind:
- Squatters in New Jersey do have rights. However, they must fulfill adverse possession requirements or they can be arrested as trespassers.
- It's not uncommon for either trespassers or squatters to claim that they have a right to be on the property falsely. They may even present a fake document that aims to mimic the legal title to the property. There is no situation in which this document forgery is legal.
- Squatters are sometimes strangers or neighbors who wish to gain ownership of the property.
On that note, it's also good to remember the following:
- If a squatter is to initiate an adverse possession claim, the property cannot have been in use.
- Under legitimate emergency circumstances, squatters can be exempt from criminal trespasser charges for entering the property uninvited.
- The beautification of an abandoned property in New Jersey can be grounds for avoiding trespasser prosecution. This can span a host of activities from cleaning debris, to landscaping, to maintenance.
Tenants at Sufferance
You'll sometimes see these people referred to as holdover tenants. Essentially, these are people who once had the right to be on a property because of a lease, but they have decided to stick around though the said lease is no longer active. While they are also technically not welcome, since their circumstances are different, they must be handled differently too.
For example, a holdover tenant could elect to act within the terms of the lease that existed by paying rent. Property owners can then accept this without concern for the legalities of the matter.
This makes the person a tenant at will, which means while they are allowed to be on the property, an eviction notice is no longer required, and they can be put out at any time.
Property owners can give notice if they wish, and if so, the tenant must leave or be the subject of an unlawful detainer lawsuit.
Note that an adverse possession claim cannot be made in New Jersey once the tenant is asked to leave. At this point, the person is seen as a trespasser.
Adverse Possession Claim
Adverse possession laws are where things can get odd in New Jersey. Essentially, a squatter, after residing on a property for some time, can claim ownership of it.
Based on NJ Rev Stat § 2A:14-30 to 32 (2016), a squatter must be on a residential property for 30 years of continuous occupation to claim adverse possession. That time becomes 60 years if the location is a woodland area.
Claiming adverse possession, while problematic for the owner, does not automatically mean the squatter will gain legal ownership of the property. There are five requirements that the law dictates must be in place before an adverse possession claim is allowed. These are covered below.
Three definitions may be used here:
- Simple occupation - The tenant occupies the land. This is regardless of knowing if it belongs to someone else or not.
- Good faith mistake - Whether it's because of an invalid deed or some other reason, the squatter genuinely believes that they are occupying the property legally.
- Trespassing awareness - The person occupying the property knows they are trespassing.
Open and Notorious Possession
This concept simply translates to the status of occupation being obvious. Anyone should be able to tell that someone is squatting.
Should the owner reasonably attempt to investigate, it should be clear and not hidden in any way that there is a squatting situation at play.
The trespasser in question should be the only land occupant. There should be no shared possession of the property with anyone else. This could include, the owner, other squatters, strangers, or additional tenants.
Continuous possession speaks to residing on the property for consecutive years. If the trespasser were to give up the use of the property, this principle would not apply, regardless of if it is returned to later.
For reference, the 30 and 60 years of continuous possession alluded to before mean that these periods must elapse with the use of the property having never been given up.
While a squatter does not have express owner's permission to be on the property, the actual possession part of things requires that they be physically present and treat the property as an owner would.
There are a couple of ways to achieve this adverse possession clause. One is by keeping a record of any beautification that may have been done to the property.
Quiet Title Filing
A property owner may find out that a squatter intends to file an adverse possession claim to gain ownership. If this is the case, that owner may opt for a quiet title action.
By doing so, a legal declaration will be provided by the court that they do indeed own the property.
Color of Title
This principle applies in situations where there isn't "regular" property ownership at play. Such an occurrence happens when the owner is missing documents, registrations, or memorials that may be required.
New Jersey has a color of title requirement for the whole 30 years of continuous possession. Only then can an adverse possession claim be made. Once made, the squatter can then claim color of title.
In New Jersey, there are Law Division Courts and there are Chancery Courts. The former is meant for cases that may involve monetary damages. For color of title actions, the Chancery Division would be appropriate as it deals with title and ownership matters.
Paying property taxes is not required of squatters under New Jersey law. However, for consideration to be made for adverse possession, there will need to be paid property taxes for no less than five of the consecutive 30 or 60-year period of continuous occupation alluded to above. Note that these five years are required to be consecutive.
Technically speaking, New Jersey does not have any specific laws to have squatters removed. The legal eviction process is what must be used here if there is a desire to get rid of squatters.
Note, however, that a provision is made for property owners who happen to be disabled. Note that the scope of disability here covers those imprisoned, legally incompetent, or who are minors.
The provision allows them extra time to reclaim their property. The disability can be lifted for different reasons. For example, the minor can come of age or the imprisoned party can be released. Five years are allocated after the said lifting to allow for property reclaiming.
Outside of this, landowners have no choice but to formally go the eviction route to get a squatter off a property. An eviction notice is usually where this starts.
The eviction can be for several reasons including engaging in illegal activity or property damage. A three-day Notice to Quit is provided, after which an eviction suit may be filed.
Should there be no damage or disturbance caused on the part of the squatter, notice may not be needed. New Jersey law permits property owners to file immediate eviction notices if rent is not paid and this clause applies to squatters too.
A squatter who wishes to remain on the property longer could choose to fight, but this is more often than not futile. It would take an incredibly strong and compelling case to win such a battle against the legal owner of a property.
Once the court grants the requested eviction, the sheriff will then issue the squatter with a warrant for removal. Three business days are then allotted for the squatter to leave. Should there be a failure to do so, a Special Civil Part Officer will show up and remove the person forcefully.
You may think that once the eviction is granted, you can go ahead and remove the squatter with your own actions but this is not the case. For example, a landowner may decide to change the locks, which would prevent entry for obvious reasons. Such actions may result in a lawsuit, which means awaiting law enforcement is always the best bet.
A squatter does not always take personal property when leaving. 30 days of notice (33 by mail) should be given by the landowner for the property to be removed. Once this time elapses, the landlord is free to sell or dispose of it.
Consider the following to protect against squatting:
- Ensure property taxes are paid on time.
- Have "no trespassing" signs placed on the property.
- Offer squatters the chance to rent the premises.
- Inspect the property frequently.
- Once squatters are identified, serve a written notice in the shortest possible order.
Having the legal title to a property is often not enough where squatting is concerned, which is made even worse when adverse possession comes into the mix.
If you need official forms for the state as a property owner, consider downloading them here!
DoorLoop hosted this webinar with attorney Craig Rothenberg from The Law Office of Craig Rothenberg to help answer many of your legal questions. Craig specializes in real estate law and evictions in New Jersey and we covered:
- Landlord-tenant issues and laws
- Grounds to evict a tenant
- Eviction process
- Preventing delays or fines
- Hiring an Attorney vs DIY
- Post COVID legal changes
Feel free to learn more and watch this webinar for free.
Is Squatting in a Home Illegal?
It is illegal if there are signs present to indicate that while it is unoccupied, the home is owned by someone.
However, the ability to claim adverse possession makes it possible for a squatter to gain ownership under certain circumstances.
Do Squatters Need to Pay Property Taxes in New Jersey?
Should squatters wish to make a legal claim on the location, consideration will only be made if the taxes were paid for five previous consecutive years.
How Long Does New Jersey Law Allow Squatters to Stay?
This is at the discretion of the owner. At least 30 years of continuous occupancy would need to take place for the squatter to have a chance at a claim via adverse possession.