A squatter is a person who resides in an abandoned or otherwise vacant building, or on another's land without legal permission. They do have the legal right to take ownership of the property in New Hampshire if they have resided on it for 20 continuous years, but the state also requires them to meet other requirements of adverse possession. If a property owner wishes to remove a squatter, they cannot just do so – if they do, the squatter can sue them. They must go through the legal eviction process, and when it finally comes to removing the squatter, they must do so with help of law enforcement.
Squatting vs. Trespassing
A squatter does not own or rent the property they live on, nor do they have permission from the owner to live there. Squatting can be an intentional act or accidental. For example, a person who lives on a property may not know where its legal boundary is until a land survey reveals the property line. Trespassing is a crime, while squatting is a civil matter, but if the property owner establishes that a squatter was not welcome, criminal charges are possible.
While squatter's rights do exist, a squatter may face a criminal trespassing charge if they do not meet adverse possession law requirements. However, there are some exceptions for avoiding a trespassing charge:
- An individual treats a property as their own while they live there by landscaping or cleaning it.
- They accessed the property due to a legitimate emergency.
- The property isn't in use by anyone other than the squatter.
Holdover Tenants Are Different From Squatters
Holdover tenants are not squatters. They are people who continue to live on a property after the expiration of their lease. After the lease ends, they are responsible for continuing to pay rent at the current rate and terms. If the landlord or property owner accepts this payment, they can do so without admitting to the legality of the occupancy. The tenant then becomes a "tenant at will," which means a landlord can evict them at any point in the future.
If the landlord issues the tenant a notice to quit or pay rent, and they don't leave, they may be the subject of an unlawful detainer, or eviction, lawsuit. If the landlord has told them to leave, they cannot make a claim of adverse possession. At this point, the law considers the holdover tenant a criminal trespasser.
Adverse Possession Allows Squatters to Claim Property
A squatter who lives on a property can gain rights to it through adverse possession in New Hampshire, provided they meet certain requirements. The first is "hostile" occupation, which has three distinct definitions:
- Simple occupation: The squatter lives on the property. They do not have to know who owns the property or even if it belongs to anyone.
- Awareness of trespassing: The squatter knows they have illegally entered the property and are aware that they do not have a right to be there.
- Good faith mistake: Requires that the occupation of the property be the result of an error. For example, the squatter may have relied on an incorrect deed that led them to believe they belonged on the property without knowing its true status.
A squatter must satisfy other requirements, including actual possession, meaning they must physically occupy the property and live on it as if it were indeed their own – beautification and maintenance work on the property can serve to document this.
They must also meet the requirement of open and notorious possession of the property. This means the squatter cannot try to hide that they live there, and the landlord would become aware of their presence if they carry out an inspection. Also, the squatter must be the only individual living on the property.
Finally, they must show continuous possession, which means their time on the property must be uninterrupted – they cannot leave for weeks or months at a time and still seek possession. New Hampshire requires 20 years of continued occupation for an adverse possession claim, according to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. Section 508:2,3.
Color of Title and Property Taxes
"Color of title" describes the title of a property that looks like it may be valid, but is not. For example, the purported owner of a property does not have the proper legal documents or memorials, or the title has a defect of some kind. New Hampshire is not a state that requires color of title for an adverse possession claim, but if a squatter can show it, it may help with their claim. It won't, however, reduce the 20-year time period required for continuous possession under New Hampshire law.
Color of title is often referred to as “apparent title" because the documents that establish title initially look like they may be legally valid, but in reality, they are not. While they purport to establish ownership, they do not suffice for that purpose. Most states have an adverse possession provision for squatters who pay property taxes. However, New Hampshire is not one of them.
Removing Squatters in New Hampshire
New Hampshire does not have any laws specific to removing squatters. Owners must remove them through the usual eviction process that they would use for a regular tenant. There is, however, a provision for legally disabled property owners.
If a landowner is a minor, in prison or lawfully incompetent, they have more time to reacquire their property from a squatter. The squatter cannot claim the property of a legally disabled person through adverse possession until five years after the lifting of their disability, which means they either become an adult, regain competency or be released from prison.
A standard eviction process in New Hampshire begins with the property owner sending an eviction notice to squatters. They can receive one of two notices depending on the circumstances the landlord finds themselves in:
- Seven-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit: This notifies squatters they have seven days to pay $15, plus the total amount of rent due to stay on the property. If, after seven days, the property owner has not received that payment, they can file the eviction paperwork with the court.
- Seven-Day Unconditional Quit Notice: The property owner uses this notice if a squatter is a danger to other tenants or the owner, and causes destruction to the property. If the squatter does not move out after seven days, the owner can file an eviction lawsuit.
Evicting a Squatter
A landlord can physically remove a squatter from their property only after winning an eviction lawsuit against them, and only a law enforcement officer can carry out the eviction. It is illegal for a landlord or owner to forcefully evict the squatter who can sue them if they try. If the squatter leaves personal effects behind, the landlord must pay for storage for seven days. During that time, they must allow the squatter to access the property to reclaim it. If they don't, the owner can dispose of it however they see fit after the seven-day period with no notice to the squatter.
A landlord or property owner must follow New Hampshire law to the letter when evicting a squatter. If they cut corners in some way or try to do it themselves, it may render the eviction process invalid. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has extended the eviction moratorium until October 3, 2021.
Unlike the eviction moratorium earlier in the pandemic, this covers only evictions in counties where "substantial" to "high transmission" of the coronavirus occurs. The extension will apply to 90 percent of renters in the United States, and New Hampshire residents can use the CDC's Covid Tracker to learn what the rates are in their county.
Protecting Real Estate From Squatters
If a property is vacant, abandoned or otherwise unoccupied, the property owner should inspect it regularly. When no one is on the premises, the owner should secure it by locking or blocking all entrances, including windows and doors. While the property is unoccupied, putting up "No Trespassing" signs may deter people from entering.
An owner or landlord should serve written notice as soon as they realize someone is on the property; they should not, however, attempt to remove a squatter on their own. Changing the locks or turning off utilities is illegal; instead, the owner must file a formal eviction proceeding with the court and if granted, wait until a law enforcement officer escorts the squatter from the property.
A landlord or property owner can also take legal action against a squatter claiming adverse possession before the statute of limitations of 20 years runs out by filing a trespassing motion with the court. They can try to show that the squatter has not met the criteria of adverse possession – for example, the individual has not lived on the property for a continuous 20 years or they may have shared it with others during that time.
Real-Life Circumstances of Losing a Possession Claim
A squatter's claims to property ownership are complex, and not every one will be successful. For example, a New Hampshire man who had lived on a property in the state for 27 years refused to leave the place he has called home. David Earl Lidstone claimed he had a promise from the previous owner that he could live in his cabin on the property until he died.
However, because he had nothing in writing from that owner and did not meet the requirements of adverse possession, he had no rights to the property. His cabin was also said to violate Canterbury, New Hampshire, building ordinances.
The owner discovered Lidstone was on the property in 2017 after notification from the town. The eviction battle went on for several years and Lidstone went to jail due to his refusal to leave the property. The court said it would free the 81-year-old man if he agreed never to return to the site and the landlord was ordered to demolish the cabin in which Lidstone had lived.
- Legal Match: Real Property Color of Title
- Union Leader: Day 14 in Jail for River Dave, Who Won't Leave His Home of 27 Years
- Justia.com: 2014 New Hampshire Revised Statutes Action, Process and Service of Process Chapter 508 - Limitation of Actions Section 508:2 - Real Actions.
- NOLO: The Eviction Process in New Hampshire: Rules for Landlords and Property Managers
- NOLO: State-by-State Rules on Adverse Possession
- IPropertyManagement: New Hampshire Squatter’s Rights
- Landlord Guidance: New Hampshire Eviction
- CDC: COVID Data Tracker
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.