Squatters are people who occupy a property belonging to someone else without their permission. If an owner fails to evict them, and they live on a property long enough, they may acquire it legally through squatter's rights. The state of New York allows ownership in this manner if they have been in residence for 10 continuous years, and they can start to claim squatters' rights within 30 days. However, there are ways property owners can legally protect themselves.
What Makes Someone a Squatter?
While it's true that a squatter is someone who moves into another's property and lives there without their permission or without their knowledge, there is more to it than that. Squatting can be an accident or it can be a deliberate act. It can come about through many different scenarios. For example, a squatter can break into a foreclosed or abandoned building and take up residence there. Or, a landlord may have asked a tenant to move after their lease has expired and they don't move or pay rent. A person may also innocently erect a fence around a piece of property or inhabit it in some other way because they believe it is theirs.
While trespassing and squatting may seem the same, they are not. Trespassing is an illegal act, while squatting is a civil matter. However, it can become unlawful if a property owner or landlord makes it clear that they want the squatter off their property.
Adverse Possession Laws in New York State
A person taking adverse possession of a home or land occupies someone else's property and, through this, can obtain squatter's rights. In New York State, a squatter who lives on property openly and without permission can claim adverse possession if they do so for 10 years uninterrupted.
According to state law, squatters can gain tenant classification after just 30 days of inhabiting a property. To reclaim it, the owner must prove their legal right to it and evict the squatter with due process, a key tenant right. Eviction is a lengthy and expensive process. In some instances, landlords will pay off a squatter to avoid costly legal fees.
How Squatters Gain Possession in New York
When a squatter makes a legal claim to a property, they are no longer trespassing – they are seeking permission to reside there, at least for the time being. Before squatters can make an adverse possession claim, they must meet a few requirements:
- Open and Notorious Possession: The act of squatting is evident to the property owner or landlord, and the person doing it is not trying to hide their possession.
- Hostile Possession: This doesn't mean taking possession of a property dangerously or violently. Hostile possession occurs under three possible circumstances: 1) Simple occupation, which means squatters inhabit the property without knowing who owns it. 2) The person shows an awareness of trespassing, meaning they knowingly break the law by being on the property. 3) They do not know the property's legal status and squat as a good-faith mistake.
- Continuous Possession: A squatter must live on a property for an uninterrupted length of time. In New York State, this is 10 continuous years. They can not leave the property for a even a few months or years and then come back to claim adverse possession. The 10-year period would begin anew.
- Exclusive Possession: The squatter must be the person claiming possession of a property. If they share it in any way, they have no claim to it.
- Actual Possession: The squatter must physically live on the property and act as its proper owner. Examples of this could be through landscaping the grounds or cleaning the interior.
Color of Title and Property Taxes
New York state law requires that squatters have "color of title" when claiming adverse possession. This means that ownership of a property is not by way of regular channels, and the squatter does not have one or more required legal documents entitling them to inhabit the property. Squatters must have color of title for 10 uninterrupted years of property occupation to claim adverse possession.
New York State requires squatters to pay property taxes for the 10 continuous years of occupation. If they cannot prove that they have done this, they are not eligible for adverse possession.
Holdover Tenants and Squatters Rights
Holdover tenants are people who stay after their lease period ends. They are still responsible for paying rent at its current rate and terms. A landlord or owner can accept this without having to address the legality of their occupancy. If they continue to take the tenant's rent payments, that renter becomes a tenant at will. The landlord can evict them with the required notice, as their stay is at the landlord's will.
If the landlord refuses to take their payment and issues the renter a Notice to Quit or Move, the tenant may face a lawsuit for unlawful detainer, commonly known as eviction. A holdover tenant cannot claim adverse possession if the landlord or owner has requested they leave; they are instead a criminal trespasser.
Eviction Laws in New York
A landlord or homeowner cannot themselves remove a squatter from their premises. The first thing they must do is call the police the moment they discover the squatter. The longer they wait, the more challenging it will be to evict them. To evict a squatter, the landlord or property owner must serve the proper forms, including:
- Notice of Petition informing the squatter they have filed a case with a set court date and location.
- A Petition to Recover Possession of Real Property and an Affidavit of Service explaining why they filed the case.
- An Affidavit of Service indicating how the landlord or property manager served the squatter, by hand delivery or mail.
After serving the initial notice of eviction proceedings, the landlord or property owner has three days to file the documents with the court. If, after filling, the squatters haven't left, the case will proceed to court hearings. After that, if they still won't leave, the sheriff can remove them from the property if the court so orders.
Preventing Squatters From Moving In
Before squatting becomes an issue, a landlord or property manager can secure the property in a way that prevents anyone from breaking in by blocking all entrances or posting no trespassing signs. If the property is vacant, they should check on it intermittently, as it only takes 30 days to establish possession.
Landlords and property owners should know the laws regarding squatters and the eviction process. In New York City, after a squatter gets a Notice to Quit, they have 10 days to vacate. If they refuse, the landlord or property owner must file a holdover petition with the court to begin evicting them. Finally, a property owner needs to have adequate insurance and liability coverage, which helps if the squatter causes damage to the property.
- iProperty Management: Adverse Possession Laws
- iProperty Management: Squatter’s Rights in New York
- Nolo: Who Can Claim Property Based on Adverse Possession in New York?
- Sterling Property Solutions: New York State Squatters Rights
- Find Law: New York Consolidated Laws, Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law - RPA § 711. Grounds where landlord-tenant relationship exists
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.