Having a squatter on your vacant property can be a nuisance, especially if you're planning on keeping that property in good shape for later.
Unfortunately for property owners, Virginia is a state that gives squatters certain rights as long as they meet the requirements for an adverse possession claim.
Still, it takes the squatter to meet several legal requirements to gain legal ownership over someone else's property, so there's a wide range of measures to take to prevent having squatters on your vacant property.
The following page will walk you through how adverse possession laws work, how you can start an eviction process to get a squatter out of your property, and other information about Virginia that could help you.
- Time of Occupation to Take Actual Possession/Legal Ownership of a Property: 15 years of continuous possession.
- Is the Color of Title Required?: Yes.
- Getting Rid of Squatters: The landlord can remove the person as a trespasser or serve an eviction notice.
Squatting vs. Trespassing
A squatter is someone who gets into an unoccupied or abandoned property/land for a particular amount of time. If the person doesn't get the property owner's permission to stay on the property, then that means they're not renting the property in any way, meaning they can't be there.
Even though it's illegal to occupy someone else's property without permission, squatting is still a common scenario in Virginia and the United States.
The term "squatter" is clear enough for most people, but some tend to confuse it with trespassing, which is a criminal offense. Squatting, on the other hand, is a civil matter.
If the squatter doesn't stay on the property for the entire statutory period or complies with Virginia law, they can't claim adverse possession. This means the landlord can treat them as trespassers.
Here are some key takeaways from squatting scenarios in Virginia:
- Squatters who aren't eligible for an adverse possession claim can get arrested for trespassing.
- Some squatters try to claim actual possession of a property through false paperwork. This is illegal and can lead to further consequences.
- It's illegal for squatters to occupy federal or state government land in any way.
- Anyone can be considered a squatter, including neighbors.
Now, keep in mind there are certain exceptions where a squatter could avoid trespassing charges or any legal claim surrounding that matter. Those exceptions include:
- If the person enters the property in case of a legitimate emergency and can prove it.
- If the person enters the property to beautify or maintain the abandoned property.
- Squatters can't start an adverse possession claim if the property is currently in use.
While there are many factors surrounding a squatter's rights in Virginia, there are still several steps they must take if they want to claim exclusive possession of your property.
Is a Tenant Holdover the Same as Squatting?
They're similar terms, but they're not exactly the same. A holdover tenant is someone who doesn't leave the rental property once the lease ends.
Property owners can decide to let the tenant stay, as long as they pay rent and comply with the lease's terms. However, a tenant holdover situation gives landlords the legal right to evict their tenant at any moment without any notice, as they will now be an "at-will" tenant.
Some landlords in Virginia still decide to provide their tenants with an eviction notice. However, if the tenant refuses to move out, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit with the county court.
Moreover, it's vital to note that, if a holdover tenant was asked to leave the property, and they didn't, they immediately lose their right to start an adverse possession case.
In essence, a tenant holdover scenario will give the property owner more legal power and options on what they can do.
Virginia Adverse Possession
As mentioned at the beginning of this page, a squatter can claim their right to be on your property under some circumstances. In essence, if they can prove adverse possession, they can legally stay.
According to Virginia Code - Ann. § 8.01-236,237, squatters must be in continuous possession of the property for at least 15 years to start their adverse possession claim.
Adverse possession laws state that, if the squatter is able to make this claim, they will no longer be considered a trespasser, and they could also claim legal ownership of your unit and remain there for as long as they want.
Fortunately for the property owner, making an adverse possession claim isn't easy, as the squatter needs to meet five different legal requirements to have grounds for it. We'll cover those requirements in the next sections.
Understanding the Color of Title
In Virginia, squatters must have a "Color of Title" for the same 15 years of continuous possession needed to make a claim.
When someone has color of title, it means that the owner is currently missing one or more legal documents for the property, meaning they have irregular ownership.
If the squatter doesn't have color of title, they can't start their adverse possession claim.
Adverse Possession Claim Requirements
Besides staying on the property for at least 15 years, every squatter in Virginia must meet five different occupation requirements to start their adverse possession case:
When we talk about a hostile claim, we're not referring to anything dangerous. There are currently three different definitions to consider for "hostile claims."
First, we have "Simple Occupation," which is the definition that most states follow. Here, the trespasser doesn't know the land or property belongs to someone else, so they think they can enter without any problems.
Then, we have "Good Faith Mistake," which is where the trespasser proves they made a mistake by staying on the property. Some squatters argue they had an incorrect deed and didn't know, so they weren't aware of the current legal state of the property. Not many states follow this rule, as it's complicated to navigate.
Finally, there's "Awareness of Trespassing." In this rule, the trespasser is aware that they have no legal rights to be on the unit and that they're, in fact, trespassing.
Every squatter in Virginia must stay on the property without the property owner's permission in order to comply with the "Hostile Claim" rule.
The "Actual Possession" applies to squatters who actively make improvements to the property. In other words, they treat the property as if it were theirs.
If the trespasser can document any beautification or improvement efforts for the property, that can be used as evidence to prove possession in the future.
Open and Notorious Possession
This rule implies that it "should be" obvious to anyone around that someone is squatting on the property. Any squatter who denies or tries to hide they're living on an unoccupied property can lose their right to file for adverse possession.
The "Exclusive Possession" rule applies to those squatters who are possessing the property exclusively. This means they're not sharing the unit with any other people, including strangers, other squatters, or even the property owner.
"Continuous Possession," as mentioned before, explains that a squatter must stay/live on the property for at least 15 years if they want to file for adverse possession.
Squatters cannot leave for any period of time, whether it's days, weeks, or months, and return later. If they do that, they could lose their right to file for adverse possession, as they must prove their 15-year time on the property was uninterrupted.
Even though it's already hard for a squatter to start their adverse possession case, there are still some cases where they will stay on the property as long as the owner doesn't do anything.
Now, Virginia doesn't specify any laws surrounding how owners can remove a squatter from their property, although they're encouraged to do it through the judicial eviction process.
First, it's vital to note that squatters can't start an adverse possession case if the owner of the property is a legally disabled person. Some of the factors that count as disability include:
- The owner is under 18 years old.
- The owner is currently imprisoned.
- The owner has any kind of mental disability.
Squatters will only be able to start their claim once the owner's disability isn't around anymore, which can refer to the owner coming of age, being released from prison, or getting cleared for their disability.
However, these people can only put off the claim for a maximum of 25 years. If 25 years have passed, and the owner still has one of these disabilities, the squatter may start their claim.
Now, if the land belongs to you, how can you evict a squatter? You can start with an eviction notice. Most landlords send a "Five-day notice to pay rent or quit." This "Pay Rent or Quit" rule states that the squatter must pay a particular amount of money to stay on the property. If they don't make the payment within five days and don't leave the property, the owner's rights in Virginia allow them to file a lawsuit.
There are other eviction notices the legal owner can issue. If the person doesn't have a lease, the owner can issue a notice to quit. On the other hand, if there is an expired lease, the owner can also issue a notice depending on the type of tenancy.
Weekly leases usually work with a seven-day notice to quit, whereas monthly leases work with a 30-day notice.
The owner may not need to issue a notice letter if they notice the squatter is doing any illegal activity.
If the squatter hasn't left the property or didn't pay rent after the eviction period has passed, both them and the owner will have to attend a hearing. There, the squatter can fight the eviction letter to stay more time, but if the owner has good legal representation, the judge will be more likely to rule in their favor.
Owners who get the eviction granted by the court will receive a "Writ of Eviction," which is a final notice that the squatter will get. If the squatter doesn't leave within this period, they can be forcibly removed from the property by a local sheriff.
It's illegal for owners to remove squatters themselves, and they cannot force them to leave either, as it's considered illegal.
About the Squatter's Personal Property
Any property left by the squatter will be considered abandoned after 24 hours, as long as the owner includes a statement in their eviction letter. After this time has passed, the owner can either keep the property or get rid of it.
Now, if the owner didn't include this statement, they still have to send the squatter a 10-day notice for them to go pick up their belongings. If they don't do it within that period, the owner is free to do anything they want with the items.
Yes! There are a few tips you can keep in mind if you want to prevent squatters from staying on your private property:
- Secure your rental property as thoroughly as possible.
- Pay property taxes.
- Make frequent property inspections.
- Consider putting "No Trespassing" signs on your property.
- Either offer the squatter the option to rent, or give them an eviction notice as soon as possible.
- Consider calling a local sheriff so that they can help you remove the squatter if they don't leave.
- Consider hiring a lawyer if you need to take legal action.
We hope this article has helped you understand how a squatter's rights in Virginia work and what you can do to prevent this issue.
Make sure to check DoorLoop's resources for the state of Virginia if you want more information about renting your property.
Free Forms for Virginia Landlords
Download free forms for all your rental documentation needs in Virginia on our forms page.
Do Squatters Pay Property Taxes?
No. Squatters aren't required to pay property taxes to be eligible for an adverse possession claim.
How Long Does a Squatter Have to Be on the Property to Claim It?
In Virginia, squatters must stay on the property for 15 uninterrupted years.
Why Are Squatters Protected in Virginia?
It's mostly to prevent owners from using "vigilante justice," which can involve threats or using violence to get a squatter out of a property since those are situations that can escalate quickly.
Can Property Owners Evict Squatters Legally?
Yes. They can send an eviction notice to the squatter, although they may choose to fight it.