South Carolina vacant properties can be occupied by squatters, even if they don't have your permission. However, while this act may seem illegal, many states protect these individuals, and some laws allow them to take possession of an abandoned unit.
Therefore, whether you want to remove them from your building or someone takes legal action to gain ownership of it, you should understand South Carolina laws and how they protect squatters.
Fortunately, you can start now! Here's all the information you need about squatters' rights in South Carolina, what to do to evict them, how this state handles an adverse possession claim, and more!
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Now, let’s dive in.
Squatting in South Carolina
- Occupation time required to claim ownership: 10 continuous years
- Color of title: Required for the whole continuous occupancy period
- Property taxes: Not required, although they could benefit the adverse possession process
- Removing squatters from the property: Judicial eviction (an eviction notice must be served)
The term "squatter" describes a person or group of individuals who squat on someone else's building or area of land without permission or paying rent. Since this act involves accessing and living in an abandoned or unoccupied property without authorization from the owner, many believe it is illegal.
However, squatting is common in the United States, and some states have enacted laws that protect squatters' rights, including South Carolina. Moreover, many people use this term and "trespassing" interchangeably, but both are different.
Squatting vs. Trespassing
While both terms define something similar, they aren't the same thing. Under US law, trespassing can be punished as a criminal offense, while squatting is handled as a civil matter unless the landlord has established that the individual who occupied the property cannot be there.
Also, while they do have rights, squatters must meet some requirements to avoid being arrested as criminal trespassers. In addition, they cannot claim adverse possession if they have occupied government property or land.
Can Squatters Avoid Being Prosecuted for Trespassing?
Yes, they can! There are some exceptions to these rules in South Carolina. If there's an emergency, for example, the person who gained access to the property is not often prosecuted as a trespasser.
Those who improve or beautify an unoccupied property can also avoid trespassing charges. Furthermore, squatters can only make an adverse possession claim if the unit was not in use when they occupied it.
Squatters vs. Holdover Tenants
Some people mistakenly believe that holdover tenants are squatters. However, again, both terms are different.
A holdover tenant is a lessee who has made an agreement with a landlord or property manager to live in a rental unit in exchange for monthly payments but refuses to leave after the lease period ends.
Also known as "tenants at sufferance," holdover tenants are responsible for paying rent according to the terms set in the original lease. However, in this scenario, they become "tenants at will," which means they remain on the property with the owner's permission but can be evicted without previous notice.
In most US states, tenants at sufferance cannot claim ownership of a property. However, South Carolina laws are different, so they can start the adverse possession process 10 years after the lease term expires.
Adverse Possession Claims
After living 10 continuous years on the property, South Carolina squatters can make an adverse possession claim to gain legal ownership. Those who start this process are no longer considered criminal trespassers.
When it comes to holdover tenants, the 10-year period of continuous occupancy begins when the lease term or the lessee refuses to pay rent and vacate the property.
Elements Squatters Must Meet to Make an Adverse Possession Claim
US states have also defined some elements that squatters planning to gain ownership through adverse possession must meet. Find more details on each one below!
Squatters must faithfully believe they have rights to the property even if they don't obtain permission from the legal owner. However, the occupation doesn't have to be violent or dangerous to be considered "hostile."
Hostile possession is defined in five ways.
- Simple Occupation: It's a mere occupation of a vacant unit or property. However, squatters must not know it doesn't belong to them and should believe they have the right to be there.
- Awareness of Trespassing: It's a requirement in South Carolina. Squatters should know that they have occupied the property through trespassing and understand that they don't have legal permission to live there.
- Good faith mistake: It requires squatters to truly believe they have legal rights to stay on the property. A common case is when they make a good faith mistake because an invalid deed says the building or area of land belongs to them.
South Carolina squatters must also prove actual possession to make a successful adverse possession claim. In simple terms, they must be physically present on the property and use it as if they owned it.
A squatter can prove actual possession by documenting any work to beautify the unit, including landscaping, improvements, or cleaning up debris.
If they hold color of title during the 10-year continuous occupancy period, squatters can gain ownership of all the land they have beautified or where they have performed maintenance work. Otherwise, they could only take possession of the area or building where they have lived.
Open and Notorious Possession
Squatters cannot hide that they have occupied someone else's property, or their adverse possession claim could be denied. Anyone should be able to notice that someone accessed the property and now lives there, including the landlord.
When it comes to adverse possession claims, a squatter who has occupied a vacant property alone has a better chance of getting the desired outcome than those who share the land with others. This is known as exclusive possession.
While dealing with more than one squatter can be more stressful and frustrating for a property owner, this scenario can benefit landlords hoping to prevent someone else from claiming legal ownership of their vacant unit.
It's considered the most important element that squatters have to meet to take ownership of a property. They must live in the land unit or area for at least 10 continuous years to make an adverse possession claim in South Carolina.
As mentioned, it must be interrupted. A squatter who was away for a few weeks or months cannot add that time into the continuous possession period.
Color of Title
Another definition related to squatting and adverse possession claims that landlords should understand is "color of title." This term describes irregular ownership of real property, which means the holder didn't have all legal registrations, memorials, or other required documents.
Should Squatters in South Carolina Have Color of Title?
Yes, South Carolina requires squatters who claim adverse possession to have color of title. In other words, those who don't have all the legal and legitimate documents cannot take ownership of a property.
Also, even if they have color of title, squatters must prove they have a right to the property by meeting these requirements:
- The property has been cultivated or improved.
- Squatters have added a substantial enclosure to the land or building.
- The unit or area of land has been used for personal purposes or to supply fuel and fencing timber for husbandry.
Since South Carolina has not defined specific laws on evicting squatters, a property owner who hopes to remove them from their building must initiate a judicial eviction process. The first step is to issue an eviction notice. These are the most common types:
- Nonpayment of Rent: Any rent amount is considered late if not paid within five days after the due date. Therefore, the property owner can issue a 5-Day Notice to Pay. If the tenant doesn't respond or vacate the property, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit.
- No Lease/End of Lease: Landlords can also serve squatters (no lease) or holdover tenants (after the lease term ends) with a notice to quit. It can be a 7-Day Notice to Quit for week-to-week tenancies and a 30-Day Notice to Quit for month-to-month tenancies.
- Illegal Activity: If the squatter or holdover tenant performs an illegal activity in the unit, the property owner can file an eviction suit without taking any other steps.
If the squatter doesn't vacate the property, landlords may apply for a Rule or Order to Show Cause. In response, South Carolina courts hold a hearing that both parties must attend.
When squatters don't respond to the Rule or Order to Show Cause, authorities often rule in favor of the property owner. After the court grants the eviction, landlords must seek a Writ of Ejectment, which is a final notice to leave that people occupying the unit must comply with within 24 hours. If they don't vacate the unit within that period, the sheriff or constable may remove them.
Self-eviction is illegal in South Carolina. Therefore, landlords shouldn't try to remove squatters themselves. Threatening them, turning off utilities, and changing the locks to prevent them from entering can set the stage for a lawsuit.
Unlike other states, South Carolina also has no provisions for disabled landlords. In some cases, being underaged, legally incompetent, or insane may be considered a legal disability. However, there is no standard, and authorities review each claim individually.
If you want to protect your property from squatters to avoid dealing with this tedious process or end up facing a legal claim in court, you can follow these tips:
- Visit the property frequently and show that you are the legal owner
- Pay property taxes on time to secure your rights to the property
- Secure the unit by blocking windows, installing locking systems on doors, or building fences
- Put "No Trespassing" signs on your vacant or foreclosed building
- Issue a proper written notice if you know that someone has occupied your unit without your permission
- Offer to rent the abandoned or unoccupied property to the squatters
- Call the sheriff or constable instead of local law enforcement to remove squatters from your property if they refuse to vacate it
- Seek legal assistance from a South Carolina attorney with experience in squatting and adverse possession cases
South Carolina law protects a squatter's rights, but that doesn't mean they can take ownership of your property. Besides proving notorious possession, they must meet other requirements to win an adverse possession case.
Also, with the help of a professional, property owners can initiate legal proceedings to evict squatters from their properties. If you're one of them, here are some helpful resources you should check!
Free Forms DoorLoop Offers to South Carolina Landlords
Are you facing squatters planning to claim adverse possession of your property? Do you want to offer to rent your unit to prevent strangers from occupying it? DoorLoop has everything you need! From eviction notices to rental applications, find and download free forms here!
Can a Squatter Claim Adverse Possession If They Didn't Live In The Property For A Continuous Period?
No, they can't! Occupying the property for an uninterrupted period of 10 years is essential to take legal ownership in this state. If there is no continuous possession, squatters cannot prove adverse possession.
Can I Protect My Vacant Unit From An Adverse Possession Claim If I Pay Property Taxes?
Although it isn't a requirement in this state, those who have paid property taxes have a better chance of obtaining the desired outcome if there's an adverse possession claim.
Therefore, as a landlord, you should pay taxes to show you're the rightful owner of the unit that squatters have occupied.
What Should I Do If the Squatter Left Personal Property in My Unit?
If a squatter's adverse possession claim was denied and they vacated the property but left personal items there, landlords must serve them with a 15-day notice to remove their belongings.
A property owner can remove and dispose of such items if the squatter doesn't respond within that period. However, if the belongings are worth more than $500, landlords must file a formal ejection application in court to get rid of them.
Can a Squatter Make an Adverse Possession Claim After Sharing the Unit With Others?
No, they can't! The state laws on adverse possession and a squatter's rights establish that only one person should possess the land to make a legitimate claim. They couldn't share the unit or building with other tenants, landlords, or trespassers.