Squatters’ Rights: California Squatter Laws for Landlords

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Part of the joy of being a landlord is the pride that comes with maintaining your properties and making them available to tenants who want to rent out a great space. Unfortunately, there may come a time when someone tries to take that pride away from you.

Squatting has been a problem for as long as property has been a concept. There have even been times where tenants overstay their lease and then try to claim that they have squatters’ rights. California has a unique set of squatting laws; if you’re working there, you need to be familiar with these laws.

Don’t let yourself be lied to or confused about squatting. There are specific regulations about what does and does not qualify as squatting. Everything that you need to know about California squatters’ rights law can be found in today’s landlord guide.

A Table of Contents for Squatting Laws in California

What is Squatting?

Squatting, legally referred to as adverse possession, is when someone moves into a property without the permission of the owner.

What does that mean in practice?

In states with squatters’ rights, someone who lives on a property long enough without interference from the owner can legally become the owner of the property.

Every state has its own laws about when this situation can occur. In most states, the squatter would need to live on the property without any request to leave by the owner for at least five years. Additionally, they would need to be the one making the property tax payments for at least five years.

As a landlord, you should never let your property fall folly to squatting laws. What are those laws in California?

What are the Squatting Laws in California?

California state laws address squatters in a way that is very different from other states. In fact, squatters’ rights in California are stronger than they are in nearly every other state in the US.

The rules in California are very clear, but they can be better understood by unfamiliar landlords if we break them down into parts.

Squatters in California must be doing the following in order to have any type of claim on the property:

  • Maintaining the property for at least five continuous years
  • If the squatter was formerly a tenant, this five years starts after the final lease ended
  • Paying property tax payments for at least five continuous years

Some people falsely believe that the squatters must actually be living in the property for adverse possession laws to apply. In California, that is actually not true! Rather than needing to live on the property for five consecutive years, the squatter must be maintaining the condition of the property for at least five consecutive years.

What Squatters Want

In California, most squatters are not trying to take possession of the property. Even though some may threaten this type of action, the majority of squatters who move into a home or stay there without permission are attempting to gain tenancy rights rather than ownership rights.

How do they do this?

Squatters usually claim the following:

  • They had an oral contract with the owner.
  • They had an oral rental agreement with the owner.
  • They had a written rental agreement with the owner (they may even fake this).

While you might think that they cannot claim these rights without any proof, there have been many cases where the squatters ultimately win the rights of a regular tenant despite your disapproval. If the court were to decide that a squatter has tenant rights, you would need to file for and move through the entire eviction process.

Some Exceptions

There are, of course, some situations where squatters are trying to take possession of a property. Due to a family death or change in finances, there are situations where people have left a condo or single-family home uninhabited for a long period of time. During that time, someone could come live in the property and eventually gain its title.

California law allows for this situation as long as the squatter living on the property was the one paying the necessary taxes, fees, and laws to maintain the property. If they were not paying the appropriate bills, they could still be legally evicted.

What Must Squatters Do to Claim Adverse Possession

Though it is rarer to see squatters actually attempt to take control of a property through adverse possession laws, there may come a time when you see this happen.

Generally speaking, any adverse possession claim must go through the following steps:

  1. Make a hostile claim by doing one of the following:
    • Honestly believe they are the rightful owner through an incorrect deed or other incorrect sale of the property
    • Occupy the land (with or without knowing it is owned by someone else)
    • Be aware that they are trespassing
  2. Live on the land as if it is their own
  3. Cannot keep living there a secret; it must be publicly known and acknowledged
  4. Continuously use the land for a period of time (five years in California)

As you can probably see, most landlords will not have to worry about someone taking possession of their property through squatting laws. Still, it is possible for this to be a problem if you have property that is unoccupied or currently unused.

How to Remove Squatters in California

What should you do if you have squatters on your property?

Most squatters are familiar with how California code works, so they will not be trying to get possession of your property. Instead, they will be trying to prove that they have tenancy by producing some type of documentation showing that they have a right to be there.

Alternatively, they simply want somewhere to stay for a short amount of time and know that it will be difficult for you to legally remove them if they claim squatters’ rights.

So, what can you do?

First, you always want to pay your own property taxes. If you do this, you will never have to worry about the squatters being able to take possession of your property.

Second, be ready to pay. That’s right; you might need to pay your way out of this.

In many cases, landlords end up paying squatters to leave their property. Most landlords would rather do this than to drag out a court case that could end up with them needing to allow the squatters to stay on the property even longer.

While not a preferred method of removal, the best way to get squatters off of your property is simply to pay them to leave.

How to Protect Your Property from Squatters

Dealing with squatters on your property is never going to be a fun situation. In order to avoid this from ever becoming an issue, there are some steps that you can take to protect and secure your property.

#1: Keep an Eye on Your Properties

If your property is occupied by a tenant with a rental agreement, you do not need to worry about squatters. Any squatter attempting to take control of your property would be found guilty of a criminal injustice due to the fact that someone else is currently living there.

If your property is unoccupied, make sure to visit it regularly. One of the key components of proving that someone has a right to a property is that they were openly using the property without any challenge from you, the landlord.

If you own property, pay attention to it and what is going on with it at all times.

#2: Pay Your Own Property Taxes

Regardless of what rental situation you have set up, always pay your own property taxes. As long as you have a record that you have been the one responsible for paying property taxes, you will be able to prove that you are the rightful owner of the property.

#3: Act Quickly

If the neighbor at one of your properties begins using part of the property regularly and without your permission, approach them quickly and find out what is going on. The neighbor will likely stop using that area if it was a misunderstanding. In other cases, however, they might push that they should be allowed to use that area.

If the second situation happens, get a property lawyer involved as quickly as possible. With the help of a lawyer, you can get a judgment from a court that clears up who owns what. This judgment will protect you and your property from future squatting issues involving that specific neighbor.

Stay One Step Ahead

Being one step ahead of the squatters’ game is the key to avoiding any unfortunate outcomes from a squatting situation. Many landlords are not aware that squatting is still a thing that can happen in modern times. By knowing the laws ahead of time, you can already stay ahead of any potential issues and protect your property.

Remember to do the following with all of your properties:

  1. Pay all property taxes yourself.
  2. Keep an eye on your properties.
  3. Address potential situations quickly to avoid future issues.

By doing these three things, you’ll be able to protect your property from the threat of squatters!