If you leave your vacant unit unattended, it's at risk of being occupied by squatters. After living there for a long time, they may even take legal action and gain ownership of the property, which can be stressful and frustrating for you or any other landlord.
Fortunately, while Washington law allows squatters to take possession of an abandoned unit, there are a few ways you can protect your legal title, including paying taxes, visiting it frequently, and more!
Do you want to know how to prevent strangers from claiming rights to your property? Are you looking for a lawful way to evict them? Read on to find the information you need to know about squatters' rights in Washington.
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- Required occupation time: 10 years for continuous possession or seven years for those who have color of title and have paid property taxes
- Color of title: Required for seven years of continuous occupation
- Removing squatters from someone else's property: Judicial eviction after serving 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit
- Property taxes: Required for seven years of continuous possession
While there is no exact legal definition, a squatter is commonly known as an individual or group who occupies another person's property, hoping to stay and live there despite not having permission from the rightful owner.
However, to better understand what a squatter is, it's important to know two similar terms: trespasser and holdover tenant. Let's take a look at each one.
What Is a Trespasser?
Many people mistakenly believe that a squatter is essentially a trespasser. However, this isn't always the case. Squatting is often treated as a civil matter, while trespassing is considered a criminal offense.
A squatter can be charged with a criminal offense if they occupy a unit after the owner made it clear that they weren't welcome there, or if they claim ownership of the property using illegitimate documents. However, they have rights that must be respected and protected under Washington law.
In addition, squatters can avoid being prosecuted for criminal trespassing if they meet a few requirements, including the following:
- The property they occupied was not in use.
- They had access to the property due to an emergency, even without permission from the legal owner.
- The abandoned unit has been beautified in some way (squatters can beautify it by planting flowers, cleaning it, or making improvements).
What Is a Holdover Tenant?
Some also use this term to refer to a squatter, but they aren't the same. In a legal sense, a holdover tenant is a person who has occupied a property through a rental agreement with the owner but refuses to vacate it after the lease term expires.
If the property owner agrees to let them stay in the unit and continue to pay rent, lessees become "tenants at will." Therefore, landlords shouldn't worry about the occupancy's legality and can evict them when necessary, even without issuing a previous notice.
A holdover tenant who refuses to vacate the property after receiving a notice to quit may face an unlawful detainer suit. Furthermore, they cannot make an adverse possession claim if asked to leave the rental unit and may be considered criminal trespassers at this point.
Washington Adverse Possession
As mentioned, laws on squatters' rights in Washington allow a person to gain legal ownership of a property if they have lived there for a long and continuous period. In this case, they must have occupied the unit and stayed there for at least 10 uninterrupted years.
However, those who have lived in someone else's building or area of land for seven years, hold color of title, and have paid property taxes can also make an adverse possession claim. After initiating this process, squatters are no longer considered criminal trespassers and can obtain legal permission to remain in the unit.
Adverse Possession Claim
Squatters can make an adverse possession claim to gain legal rights to property, but they must meet some requirements if they want to get the desired outcome, including the following:
Any squatter who wants to take legal action to claim adverse possession must prove hostile occupation. However, it doesn't have to be violent or represent any danger. The legal system defines it in the following three ways:
- Simple occupation: This rule, followed by many states, defines the mere occupation of someone else's property as "hostile." However, squatters aren't required to know that the unit belonged to another individual.
- Good faith mistake: While this rule is rare, compared to the other two, some squatters must have made a mistake occupying the property. It applies to those who believed they had legal rights to be in the unit due to an invalid or incorrect deed, for example. Whoever occupied the property must have been unaware of its legal status.
- Awareness of Trespassing: If they apply this rule, squatters should have been aware that they have occupied the property through trespassing or don't have legal possession of it.
Open and Notorious Possession
As another requirement, squatters must not hide that they have occupied the property and live there if they plan to make an adverse possession claim. Anyone, including a landlord who makes a reasonable effort to learn the unit's status, should be able to notice that someone has squatted on it.
As in other states, squatters must also prove that they currently live and use the property by documenting any improvements or beautification work they perform there.
However, Washington has a slightly different law. Those who have occupied forestland and plan to make adverse possession claims must make substantial improvements with costs exceeding $50,000.
In this state, squatters have two options when it comes to proving continuous possession, depending on occupancy conditions. They can make an adverse possession claim if they have lived in the unit for 10 uninterrupted years. However, for those who hold color of title and have paid property taxes, the period is seven years.
Squatters should remember that they cannot leave the unit for weeks or months, return later, and then try to claim possession of it. The period they reside in the property must be continuous from the time they occupy it until they start the adverse possession process.
Also, there is an exception in this period that can benefit landlords. When the property owner is legally disabled, the time frame for trying to regain control of the property is extended through a process called "tolling."
In simple terms, the period to claim adverse possession begins only three years after the legal disability is lifted. It applies to cases involving underaged people, those who are in the military, prisoners, and individuals considered legally incompetent.
A squatter can only take legal action to gain legal ownership of a property if they haven't shared the unit with other squatters, tenants, or landlords. This is known as exclusive possession.
Color of Title
If you've been looking for information on squatters' rights, another term you've probably come across is "color or title." In a legal sense, it defines that the ownership isn't "regular" because the owner doesn't have all the required documents and lacks registrations or memorials.
As mentioned, having color of title and paying property taxes can decrease the continuous occupancy period in Washington. However, in this case, squatters must hold the document for seven uninterrupted years.
Washington also has unique rules when it comes to removing squatters from someone else's property. In this state, landlords can remove anyone who has occupied their units without their permission by calling the police.
While most states require the actual property owner to initiate a civil eviction process to make squatters leave their land, Washington allows landlords to take criminal action against them.
Property owners must give a declaration form to law enforcement officers who must allow the squatter to show credible evidence that they have the right to be in the unit.
However, if squatters fail to present convincing evidence, law enforcement officers can remove them from the premises or arrest them for trespassing if they refuse to vacate the property.
This resource is ideal for property owners who have asked squatters to leave as long as there is no tenant-landlord relationship within the last 12 months. In these cases, landlords must opt for the traditional eviction process.
What Is a Declaration Form?
It's a specific form that Washington law provides to let landlords remove squatters from their property with the help of local police. The declaration must specify the following:
- The person making the declaration is the actual property owner or has legal rights to the property.
- Whoever occupies the unit is not a tenant or owner and has not been in the last year.
- An individual occupies the property without authorization to do so.
- The building or area of land was not abandoned or open to the public when the squatter gained access.
- The person making the declaration understands that the squatter can sue them if they make false statements about the rights to the property.
- The individual making the declaration releases the law enforcement officer from liability for actions resulting from the declaration.
What Is Considered Credible Evidence?
As mentioned, a squatter who is on someone else's property must present credible evidence that they have the right to be there. Authorities must review such evidence, confirming whether the individual is a tenant, guest, or legal occupant. Otherwise, they could be evicted.
If you have a vacant property in Washington and want to protect it from squatting, you can follow these tips:
- Pay property taxes on time, as it proves that you're the rightful owner
- Seek help from an attorney experienced in adverse possession laws to prevent someone else from taking ownership of the property
- Visit and inspect your vacant unit regularly
- Secure your building or area of land with fencing or locking systems
- Post "No Trespassing" signs on the property if it's vacant
- Offer squatters the possibility of renting the property to prevent adverse possession claims
- Call authorities before trying to evict them yourself, as this may end up in a lawsuit against you
As mentioned, a squatter can gain ownership of another person's property through adverse possession. However, compared to other states, Washington's laws are slightly different.
A person with color of title for seven consecutive years can make adverse possession claims before the required period. Additionally, landlords can take legal action against squatters for trespassing in some scenarios.
Do you need more information to prevent someone else from taking ownership of the property that cost you so much to acquire? Here are some resources that can help you!
Free Forms Available for Washington Landlords
If you want to speed up those tedious processes of offering your Washington vacant property for rent or evicting squatters, find useful free forms at Doorloop! From rental applications to eviction notices, we've got you covered!
Can I Evict a Squatter in Washington?
Yes, you can! Washington laws allow landlords to evict squatters through a declaration form to the police.
Can I Protect My Property If I Pay Property Taxes?
Yes, you're right! If you pay property taxes, you can prove that you are the actual owner of the property.
Why Should I Seek Legal Advice From a Lawyer?
If you must take legal action against squatters, contacting a professional is the best way to go, as professionals can help you understand the intricacies of Washington's law system and defend your legal right to protect your property.
How Much Time Do I Have to Fight an Adverse Possession Claim?
Ideally, you should start the process as soon as you can since Washington allows squatters to shorten the period to make an adverse possession claim if they have paid taxes and hold color of title.