When a person occupies someone else’s property without permission, he becomes a squatter. If the property owner does nothing, eventually the squatter gets so-called “squatter’s rights” – the right to legally acquire the property simply by being there for a long time. Squatter's rights can make eviction complicated in New York State, as the court can award squatters ownership if they have been living in the property for 10 years.
What Is a Squatter?
Most people think of squatters as people who move into a vacant property and begin living there without the owner’s consent. While these people are certainly squatters, there is not one single definition. Squatting can happen accidentally as well as deliberately, such as when someone genuinely thinks she owns land due to confusion over boundary lines or title deeds.
Scenarios that are all examples of squatting include:
- Someone who breaks into an abandoned or foreclosed building and starts to live there.
- A tenant or subtenant who does not move out at the end of her lease, even though the landlord has asked her to move, and stops paying rent
- A person who erects a fence around someone else’s land and incorporates it into his own property because he genuinely believes the land belongs to him.
What Are Squatter's Rights in New York State?
The legal doctrine of “adverse possession” exists in New York State. By this law, a squatter who meets certain conditions earns the right to become the legal owner of the property she is occupying. These conditions include:
- 10-year actual possession. Most states have some type of adverse possession law, but the time period required before the rights kick in differs from state to state. In New York State, a squatter can claim title if he has been living in the property as if he was the owner for 10 years.
- Exclusive and continuous possession. The 10-year period must be unbroken. If the squatter moves out for a few weeks, this will stop the clock. Possession must also be exclusive, meaning the squatter cannot share occupation with other legal or illegal occupiers.
- Open and notorious use. This legal jargon essentially means the squatter must live in the property openly and not in secret. Neighbors should be aware that the squatter has taken over the property, and the squatter’s presence should be obvious from a physical inspection.
- Hostile claim, which means inhabiting without the owner’s permission. If the squatter has permission to be on the property, for example, has a verbal lease arrangement, then he cannot claim adverse possession rights.
If the squatter misses any of these conditions, the property owner has the right to evict the squatter.
Are Squatters Trespassers?
It’s easy to think of squatters as trespassers but in most cases, a squatter lives like a legal owner – receiving mail at the property, getting the utilities connected and even paying property taxes. Trespassers, on the other hand, tend to break into the property, causing damage, and do not treat the property as the owner would. The police will normally consider trespassing to be a criminal issue and will intervene to remove a trespasser from the property.
However, some cities – including New York City – have passed special laws that give trespassers additional rights. In NYC, if trespassers have lived in a property for more than 30 days, they are no longer trespassing and cannot be removed by the police. Squatting is a civil matter, and the property owner must get an order from the civil courts to remove squatters.
Can You Get Rid of Squatters?
Adverse possession laws are based on the principle that if an owner does not evict a squatter for 10 entire years, then he could lose legal ownership to the squatter. That’s a long time frame, and most squatters are legally evicted long before the adverse possession rules arise. In New York State, the process for evicting a squatter is exactly the same as the process for evicting a problem tenant, and includes:
- Serving a 10-day eviction notice. The owner gives the tenant 10 days to “quit” or leave the property.
- Filing a lawsuit. If the squatter does not leave, the property owner can file an eviction lawsuit in the civil courts and attend a hearing before a judge. If the courts rule in the owner’s favor, which is likely, the judge will issue an order for possession.
- Having the squatter removed. The property owner cannot remove the squatter herself – only local law enforcement may remove the squatter per the court’s instructions.