Arguably one of the most significant concerns that property owners have is losing their land to squatters. The state of Pennsylvania protects squatters' rights, so it's important that landowners understand the applicable laws.
In this article, we will provide all you need to know about squatters and how to prevent adverse possession.
What's a Squatter?
An individual or group of people who move into a house, building, or plot of land with the goal of residing there indefinitely without the owner's consent is known as a squatter. Through adverse possession, some occupants ultimately acquire the legal title to the unoccupied property.
After the squatter has fulfilled the necessary procedures and made their case before a judge, they can take adverse possession of the land.
Squatters are not limited to living in residential properties. They can also settle into any vacant business facility, such as factories, hotels, hospitals, and schools.
The truth is that these unwelcome guests are difficult to evict regardless of the fact that they are violating the property. After a predetermined period, a squatter cannot claim the rights to your property unless a necessary eviction procedure and state-specific rules are followed.
Pennsylvania Squatters Rights
Finding abandoned properties is considerably more inexpensive because living in the United States can be costly. Squatters are not always homeless. They can be upstanding residents with a respectable yearly income who are able to cover property taxes and other necessary costs.
Additionally, squatters can't be prosecuted for residing on your land even if they do not cause any damage to your property or take any of your possessions. If you don't step in and issue an eviction notice to the unwelcome visitors, their right to assert ownership of your property will continue.
Keep in mind that resolving squatter disputes is not subject to landlord-tenancy restrictions.
The Homestead Act, which was adopted on May 20, 1862, hastened the colonization of the western area by awarding adult heads of families 160 acres of public property in exchange for a small registration fee and five years of uninterrupted habitation of the land. Claimants had to occupy the abandoned or unoccupied property, maintain it, and otherwise "improve" it.
Renters that refuse to vacate the premises after their lease has expired are known as holdover tenants or "tenants at sufferance." The obligation to pay rent at the current rate and under the current conditions remains with the tenant in this scenario.
Moreover, the landlord is free to accept that the tenant pay rent as-is without worrying about the validity of the tenancy if they choose. A tenant in this situation becomes a "tenant at will." They are thus only present on the rental property at the landlord's discretion and could be kicked out at any time and without warning.
The holdover tenant could be sued for illegal detainer if they are served with a notice to vacate and fail to do so. If a holdover tenant has previously been asked to leave the premises, they are not eligible to file an adverse possession claim. They are now regarded as a criminal trespasser.
Trespassing vs. Squatting
It's essential for property owners to understand the difference between a trespasser and a squatter. Those that intentionally enter a person's home, building, or property without that person's consent or authorization are considered trespassers.
Trespassing is considered a criminal offense in Pennsylvania, so the Sheriff's office has the authority to remove anyone found to be invading someone else's property.
Squatters, on the other hand, are people who have moved into someone else's home, building, or land with the goal of residing there as though they were the owner.
Pennsylvania Adverse Possession
Adverse possession is the term used to describe a set of laws that grant a squatter the right to acquire ownership rights to a property once they have inhabited it and fulfilled the regulatory requirements for becoming the legal owner. The terms "adverse possession" and "squatter's rights" are frequently used interchangeably.
A "disseisor" is another term for a person who pursues an adverse possession claim. The person asserts that they were able to evict the real owner and now have a legitimate claim to take possession of the property.
To assert their squatter's rights and claim legal title to a piece of land in Pennsylvania, a disseisor must demonstrate a few minimum requirements.
Adverse Possession Claim
To qualify for a claim, the following elements must be proved according to adverse possession laws:
Squatters occasionally work in groups to share one piece of property. In certain circumstances, or when the unwelcome guest is co-occupying the land with the legitimate owner, Pennsylvania will not accept an adverse possession claim. Instead, the squatter must have had exclusive possession of the property for a minimum of 10 to 20 years.
Squatters must demonstrate that they have active control over the premises to further meet the prerequisites for an adverse possession claim. This means that they must occupy it and utilize it like a homeowner would, whether that means enhancing the landscaping or carrying out regular repairs and improvements.
The squatter must have paid any municipal, county, or state taxes due on the land throughout the 10 to 21 years during which they have been in continuous possession of the land.
This time frame is lengthier than in most states, requiring squatters in Pennsylvania to be more persistent.
Open and Notorious Possession
The next element that must be proved is open and notorious possession of the property. Squatters are required to live freely on the land and not deliberately conceal their presence. They would have partially satisfied the requirements for a claim on the property if they've been residing there openly and it is clear to everyone who arrives there (including the property owner).
Hostile possession may seem violent, but seldom does it result in physical contact. Instead, it occurs when someone resides on the property without the owner's permission.
This could apply to situations when a home invader is aware that the land belongs to somebody else. It also refers to instances that can be deemed "simple" or "good faith" occupations where the person is unaware that their occupation is illegal.
Color of Title
In property law, the phrase "color of title" refers to a person's assertion that they are in possession of a document granting them ownership of a piece of land when, in fact, they do not own such title, or the documentation itself has a specific flaw.
A void deed or one with inaccuracies in it may give the impression that someone owns a piece of property, but this is not the case.
Because squatters could use a color of title as a technique to give the impression that they possess the land and might utilize it to eventually achieve legal ownership of real property in certain states, color of title is frequently brought up in cases involving adverse possession claims.
In Pennsylvania, t is not necessary to have a color of title to assert a squatter's rights and make an adverse possession claim.
Although squatters in Pennsylvania have some legal protections, landowners can safeguard themselves and their assets from squatter-related legal issues by following these straightforward recommendations:
1. Use Signage
It's important to let squatters know that they are not welcome on your land. Putting up "No Trespassing" signs is a great way to do this.
2. Invest in Better Security
If you prevent squatters from gaining access to the property, you can avoid having to deal with a dispute when someone tries to gain legal possession of it. You can do this by installing cameras, gates, and locks to enhance security.
3. Ensure That You Have Paid Property Taxes
Paying your property taxes on time will deter others from trying to claim your land since they are a crucial prerequisite for any adverse possession claim.
4. Visit the Property Regularly
By making regular visits to the property, you can ensure that no one is residing there without your consent. During checks, you can also check to sell that your security system is still in good working condition. If you know that you will be gone for a long time, it's advisable to get someone else to conduct these visits on your behalf.
Squatter Moves In
Remember that squatters in Pennsylvania have different rights than trespassers. Thus, dealing with squatters calls for careful consideration and action.
It is advisable to seek the advice of a local lawyer specializing in adverse possession law and an extensive understanding of squatter's rights in Pennsylvania when handling someone who has occupied property without the owner's consent.
Here are some of the things you can do to get rid of a squatter:
Contact the Sheriff's Office
Suppose the individual claiming control of the residence is deemed a squatter, not a trespasser. In that case, the Sheriff's office may not be able to remove them from the premises because squatting is not considered a criminal offense in Pennsylvania.
Reporting to the Sheriff is a helpful first step, though, as it creates a record of the encounter that can be used as evidence if the matter proceeds to court.
Begin Eviction Proceedings
Before a tenant can be forcibly evicted by the Sheriff's office, the manager or property owner must issue an eviction notice to them during the eviction process.
In Pennsylvania, a landlord can issue an eviction notice early on to prevent having to involve the judicial system. The notice period will depend on the type of tenancy.
As the property owner, you will have to comply with Pennsylvania's minimum notice requirements and provide the occupant with adequate time to vacate the property.
The next step is to begin actions in the county court if a squatter is asserting adverse possession and refuses to vacate the property beyond the time limit specified in the notice to vacate.
This will start a hearing procedure where the case will be submitted to a judge who will then make a decision.
Understanding squatters' rights is essential if you are a property owner in Pennsylvania. Whether your building is vacant because of pending renovations or awaiting a sale, it's important to safeguard yourself against adverse possession claims.
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Do squatters pay property taxes in Pennsylvania?
According to adverse possession laws, squatters in Pennsylvania are not required to pay property taxes. However, this is not the case in most states, as they mandate that squatters pay property taxes to qualify for an adverse possession claim.
I have "No Trespassing" signs up, but someone moved in without my consent. Is this legal?
Anyone trying to squat on your unused land may be charged with criminal trespassing if you have put up signs warning against intruding and clearly stating that no one is permitted on the premises. It's not always considered trespassing, though, if your building is unoccupied and the person residing there has no way of knowing that they're not supposed to be there.
Can local law enforcement remove squatters in Pennsylvania?
No, law enforcement cannot remove squatters. However, if someone is trespassing, the police can take action and force them to leave.
Will a squatter have grounds for an adverse possession claim if they do not meet the five requirements?
No. If the squatter cannot prove the elements listed below, they cannot file an adverse possession claim in Pennsylvania. These elements are:
- Hostile claim
- Actual possession
- Open and notorious possession
- Exclusive possession
- Continuous possession