In North Carolina, the adverse possession doctrine grants a squatter the legal right to property that belongs to someone else, provided that the individual meets each of its requirements. A squatter is not a tenant; they occupy an abandoned, foreclosed or otherwise vacant property without the owner's permission. North Carolina does not have specific laws on the books for removing squatters. Property owners must evict them through a court proceeding, and when it is time to remove them from the property, law enforcement will carry out the eviction.
Trespassing and Squatting in North Carolina
Squatting and trespassing share some of the same qualities. However, trespassing is a criminal matter, while squatting is typically a civil violation.
Squatting can become a criminal offense if the squatter does not win their claim to the property and they remain on the property even though the owner does not want them there. In that instance, they may face a criminal trespassing charge. Squatters may try to claim their right to a property by presenting false or invalid documents, which is illegal.
There are exceptions for squatters facing a trespassing charge:
- If they beautify the property, they may avoid prosecution. This includes landscaping, cleaning debris and performing maintenance.
- The squatter had a legitimate emergency that resulted in their occupying the property.
- For squatters to begin an adverse possession claim, the land must not be in use.
Adverse Possession Laws in North Carolina
When an individual successfully makes an adverse possession claim, they gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, they have permission to remain there. But they must fulfill the five requirements of adverse possession before this happens. The first factor, "hostile" occupation, has three definitions that the state may use:
- Simple occupation: This is just a way to say that a trespasser occupies the property. They do not need to know who owns it or even if it belongs to anyone.
- Awareness of trespassing: They must understand that their use of the property is trespassing and know they have no legal right to be there.
- Good faith mistake: The person trespassing has made an innocent mistake and occupies the property as a result of that error. For example, they believe they belong on the property because they relied on an incorrect or invalid deed and do not know its actual legal status.
A squatter must also meet the actual possession requirement, which states that they must have a physical presence on the property and treat it like they already own it. They can prove this by documenting their beautification and maintenance efforts.
They must then meet the requirement of open and notorious possession, which means it is obvious they live on the property and they are not trying to hide their presence. They must also meet the exclusive possession requirement, which states that they are the only person living on the property and do not share it share with anyone else, including the owner.
Finally, they must reside on the property for an uninterrupted statutory period of time, which is known as continuous possession; under North Carolina law they'll need 20 years of continuous occupation to make an adverse possession claim.
Color of Title and Property Taxes
"Color of title," also called apparent title, describes legal title to a property that appears valid, but in reality, is missing some parts or the documents supporting it have a legal defect, rendering title invalid. In that case, the title fails to establish actual ownership. Some states require color of title for adverse possession claims, but North Carolina is not one of them. However, having color of title can reduce the continuous occupation time period from 20 years to seven years.
In some states, a squatter may have to pay property taxes as a requirement for making a claim of adverse possession. North Carolina does not require this, and paying property taxes does not reduce a squatter's continuous occupation time.
Removing a Squatter in North Carolina
North Carolina does not have specific laws for removing squatters. Owners must go through the regular eviction process in court to remove them from a property. There is a disability provision squatters can use to buy some time.
If the homeowners have a legal disability – for example, if they are a minor, imprisoned or incompetent – they may have more time to reclaim their land after the lifting of that disability. They will have three years from the time they come of age, get out of prison or regain their competency to stop a squatter from legally acquiring their property through adverse possession.
If the actual owner successfully evicts the squatter, they must not remove that person by changing the locks or turning off the utilities. These are illegal acts that can result in a lawsuit against the property owner by the squatter. Instead, they must ask for help from law enforcement by obtaining a Writ of Possession. This allows a sheriff to evict the squatter and padlock the property.
Covid-19 and Evictions in North Carolina
North Carolina did have a Covid-19 eviction moratorium issued by Governor Roy Cooper, but he did not extend it past June 30, 2021. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) extended a federal eviction moratorium in August 2021, according to CNN.
The CDC moratorium targets the areas with the most substantial transmission rates of COVID-19, which included more than 80 percent of United States counties as of August 1, 2021. According to the White House, the federal moratorium will cover 90 percent of the country's renters, including those in North Carolina, and will last until October 3, 2021.
- CNN: Renters Are Rejoicing Now That Eviction Ban Has Been Extended. What You Need to Know
- North Carolina Judicial Branch: COVID-19 Information for Landlords and Tenants
- TE Johnson and Sons: A Guide to North Carolina Squatter Rights
- NOLO: State-by-State Rules on Adverse Possession
- Legal Match: Real Property Color of Title
- Find Law:North Carolina Adverse Possession Laws
- IProperty Management: North Carolina Squatter’s Rights
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.