If a property has been abandoned, is vacant or has been neglected by a property owner for some length of time, there is a likelihood that squatters will begin living on it. If a squatter in Pennsylvania meets the state’s adverse possession requirements, they can eventually own the property legally.
What Is a Squatter in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania law defines a squatter as an individual who lives on an abandoned, foreclosed or unoccupied property without the rightful owner’s lawful permission. This person does not rent the property. The owner of the property may know the squatter – they may be neighbors – or they may be strangers who want to gain title to it.
While squatting does have some commonalities with trespassing, it is not trespassing. Pennsylvania considers trespassing a criminal offense; squatting is civil in nature. However, once the property owner or landlord establishes that a squatter is not wanted on the property, the squatter can face criminal charges.
While squatters do have rights, they must meet adverse possession requirements to use them. If they don’t meet those requirements, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
What Is Adverse Possession?
A squatter can claim property rights after meeting five main requirements of adverse possession. If they do this, the state will not consider the squatter a criminal trespasser, and they will have lawful permission to remain on the land.
A squatter cannot use adverse possession to lay claim to federal or state government condominiums, cooperatives, land, or planned communities, and they cannot falsely claim to be on the property by presenting fraudulent paperwork to the property owner or to law enforcement.
A squatter may also be able to stay on the property and avoid a trespassing charge if they beautify an abandoned or unoccupied property, gain access to the property due to a legitimate emergency, or if the property is not in use when the squatter begins an adverse possession claim. Some states require the squatter to pay property taxes in an adverse possession claim, but Pennsylvania does not.
What Defines a Holdover Tenant?
Holdover tenants, or "tenants at sufferance,” are renters who do not leave the rental property after their lease ends. The holdover tenant must still pay rent at the existing rate and terms.
If the property owner chooses, they can continue accepting the rent, and the occupancy remains legal. In this instance, the tenant becomes a “tenant at will,” meaning that they are at the will of the landlord who can evict them without notice at any time.
However, if the property owner sends the holdover tenant a notice to quit, or move out, and they do not leave, they may face an unlawful detainer lawsuit. In this instance, the holdover tenant cannot make an adverse possession claim because they have already been asked to vacate the property and are now a criminal trespasser.
Pennsylvania Adverse Possession Laws
If a squatter meets all the requirements of adverse possession, they can obtain "squatter's rights" and continue living on the property. They do not have to not pay rent to the owner.
Squatters rights are in place only after the squatter publicly occupies the property for several years, and the landowner has not attempted to evict them during that time.
Five Requirements of Adverse Possession
Squatters must meet five requirements of adverse possession. The first, continuous possession, has to do with a squatter's occupancy of a property. Most states have squatting laws requiring squatters to possess properties for a certain length of time before they claim the property they are on.
In Pennsylvania, a squatter must be continuously on the property for 21 years. They can add time via a previous squatter’s use of the property if they have connection to that squatter.
Exclusive possession is another requirement of adverse possession that requires that the squatter not share the property ownership with anyone else, including other squatters, strangers, tenants or even with the owner – they must live on the property alone.
Hostile Claim in Pennsylvania
Hostile possession has three requirements that a squatter must meet under adverse possession:
- Squatter must occupy the property without permission from the legal owner. This is “simple occupation.”
- Trespasser knows that they are trespassing and have no legal right to inhabit the property.
- Squatter makes a “good faith” mistake, meaning they did not know someone else owned the property. (For example, they relied on information from an incorrect or invalid deed.)
Open and Notorious and Actual Possession
Under actual possession, the trespasser is physically present and treats the property as if they already owned it. They may make beautification efforts, clean the property or maintain it regularly.
Under open and notorious possession of the property, squatters must be public about their occupancy of the property. If they make attempts to hide it, they cannot make an adverse possession claim. Their presence must be reasonably discernible to anyone else investigating the property.
Act 34 and Legislative Changes
In 2019, Act 34 reduced occupancy to 10 years on properties. The squatter must still satisfy all the remaining adverse possession requirements, file a quiet title action (a proceeding that clarifies or confirms a property’s legal ownership) enforcing their claim, and give notice to the owner in a form required by the state Supreme Court.
To reduce the period of time, the property must:
- Be one-half acre or smaller.
- Have an attached or detached single family home occupied by the squatter during the entire period.
- Be identified as a separate lot in a subdivision plan, municipal map or plan or recorded conveyance.
The squatter can include a common lot in their adverse possession claim if:
- It is used regularly as part of or incidental to the main property.
- Is not more than one-half acre when in combination with the primary property.
What Is Color of Title in Pennsylvania?
Color of title is a written document that squatters believe show they have the legal right to possession of a property. However, this document is not legally valid in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania color of title claims do not change, expedite or shorten any requirements of adverse possession.
Color of title simply means that the property’s ownership is not regular and that the person who legally owns the property is missing at least one of the correct documents, legal registrations or memorials.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.