If a property is empty or has been neglected or abandoned by the owner, then there is a reasonable chance that squatters will move in. By definition, a squatter is someone who occupies space he does not own without the permission of the owner. If the owner becomes aware of squatters on her property, then she has the legal right to evict them. In Pennsylvania as in most states, however, a squatter can actually become the legal owner of the property in certain circumstances.
How Squatters Can Become Property Owners
“Squatter's rights” is a casual phrase to describe the situation whereby someone enters and lives in an unused property that she has no legal right to inhabit, and later by law becomes the legal owner of the property. Most states allow long-term squatters to eventually become the legal owner of a property if they have occupied it continuously for a specified length of time. In Pennsylvania, that time period is either 21 years or 10 years, depending on the type of property.
The legal doctrine that covers squatter’s rights is known as adverse possession. The law originally came about in an attempt to prevent buildings from being forgotten and falling into disuse. According to the doctrine, if the owner abandons his property and someone else takes up residence for a specified number of years, the squatter could gain legal title to the building.
It’s not as simple as moving in and waiting out the time period, however. Pennsylvania squatters must meet a few conditions before they can claim adverse possession rights.
How to Claim Squatters Rights in Pennsylvania
In order for a Pennsylvania squatter to take ownership of a property, several things must happen, which include:
- Continuous occupation for the designated period. The squatter must live continuously at the property with no interruptions for the statutory period. In Pennsylvania, this is 21 years for most properties. The period has recently been reduced to 10 years for single-family homes with a lot size of less than one-half acre, with the intention of making it easier for squatters to claim adverse possession rights in high-density towns and cities.
- Acting as an owner. The squatter must physically possess the property and act as an owner would, for example, by cleaning and repairing the property and paying property taxes and utility bills.
- An occupation that is “open and notorious.” This expression means that the squatter must occupy the property openly and not in secret. If the owner visited the property, the squatter’s presence would be pretty clear.
- An occupation that is hostile. In other words, the squatter cannot have permission from the owner. A person with a lease or rental agreement cannot be a squatter. The clock starts ticking on the adverse possession claim as soon as the squatter physically enters the property on hostile terms.
Can Owners Remove Squatters in Pennsylvania?
Owners are entitled to evict squatters from their Pennsylvania properties right up to the point where the squatter claims his adverse possession rights. In other words, owners have either 10 or 21 years to remove their unwelcome “guests.”
A full eviction process must take place, meaning the property owner must serve the squatter with a notice to quit and schedule a court hearing in exactly the same way as if he were evicting a tenant. In most cases, a judge will grant an order of possession if the occupier is clearly a squatter who will not leave. However, there is always a risk that the eviction will fail if the paperwork is not completely correct. This would put the owner back to square one and he would have to start the eviction process again.
Given the time-consuming nature of squatter evictions, the city of Philadelphia has passed a law under which evictions could be completed within 30 days. Under this measure, homeowners may file an affidavit saying they’re the legal owner of the property and schedule an emergency eviction hearing. If the judge agrees, she can order the squatter to leave and impose a fine of up to $300 a day and 90 days in jail if the squatter has damaged the property or committed a property-related crime. Other cities may adopt similar legislation – property owners should check local laws before filing for eviction.