A squatter is someone who lives on an abandoned, foreclosed or vacant property without legal permission from the property owner. All states, including Massachusetts, give squatters the right to take ownership of real estate provided they meet the requirements of "adverse possession."
Squatting vs. Trespassing
Squatting is the occupation of an unoccupied property without the lawful owner's consent. The unlawful tenants are known as "squatters." Trespassing is entering another person's property knowingly and without permission from the owner. While trespassing and squatting may seem the same, trespassing is criminal – squatting is a civil matter.
Squatting can become unlawful if the property owner wants the squatter removed, and the squatter doesn't meet certain conditions regarding their time there. If a squatter meets these conditions, they can gain legal ownership of the property by adverse possession.
Squatting can be deliberate or can occur accidentally and in different scenarios. For example, a person can break into and take up residence in a foreclosed or abandoned building without knowing if anyone owns it. A person may also put up a fence around property that they mistakenly believe is theirs.
Holdover Tenant vs. Squatter
Holdover tenancy is slightly different from squatting or trespassing – it occurs when a tenant continues living on a property after the expiration of their lease agreement. If a landlord continues to accept rent payments from that tenant, they become a tenant at will.
Massachusetts and Adverse Possession Laws
A squatter that takes adverse possession of real property lawfully acquires that property if they meet the required elements. If they do not, they cannot legally remain there.
Once a squatter's rights are in place, they can live on a property legally without paying anything to the owner or paying property taxes. Squatter's rights kick in only after the individual has publicly occupied the property for several years, and the property owner has not tried to evict them during that period.
Elements of an Adverse Possession Claim
Continuous possession is uninterrupted property occupancy. Most squatting laws require squatters to possess and maintain properties for a specific period of time before claiming a legal right to them. In Massachusetts, a squatter has to be on a property continuously for 20 years.
Exclusive possession states that a squatter cannot share property ownership with anyone else – they have to occupy the property alone. The squatter who has a continuous possession of the land must make physical changes to it by performing maintenance, cleaning or landscaping in order to meet the requirements for actual possession.
Hostile possession is the idea that a squatter occupies a property without express permission from the property owner. Perhaps the individual does not know it belongs to someone else or that inhabiting it is illegal – this is known as a "simple" or "good faith" occupation.
Finally, the squatter must be public about their occupancy of the property. If they hide their presence, they cannot make a claim of adverse possession. It must be reasonably discernible to anyone investigating a property that someone lives there. This is known as open and notorious possession.
Defining Color of Title
"Color of title" is a written document giving a squatter reason to believe they have the right to property possession, however, the document is not a legally valid document.
Color of title claims in Massachusetts do not shorten, change or expedite any of the adverse possession requirements. Regardless of color of title, a squatter must occupy a property exclusively, continuously, and publicly for a minimum of 20 years to make a claim to legal title though adverse possession.
Protecting a Property From Squatters
To protect their property from a squatter's occupancy, an owner should:
- Visit the property frequently: Extended absences make it easier for someone to take possession of a property.
- Secure the property: Seal entrances and lock gates to the property and lock and doors and windows.
- Post signs: "No Trespassing" signs let potential squatters know the property has an owner and that they are not welcome.
- Make timely property tax payments: This helps property owners establish rightful ownership in court.
If a squatter does make it onto a property, the property owner can serve them with written notice as soon as they become aware of the squatter's presence. The property owner can also offer to rent their property to that person.
If these attempts don't work, they should contact their local sheriff's office for assistance. Property owners should not take matters into their own hands by threatening the squatter or turning off utilities to evict them, as it can cost them legal consequences.
Evicting Squatters Under Massachusetts Law
No law in Massachusetts specifically removes squatters – the property owner must remove them as if they were evicting a regular tenant under landlord-tenant laws. They must use these notices to do so:
- 14-Day Notice to Quit: The day after rent is due, it's late. A property owner gives this notice to tenants who do not pay rent on time.
- 30-Day Notice to Quit: The property owner gives this notice to tenants who have stayed past their lease term or to those who didn't have a lease.
- 7-Day Notice to Quit: In Massachusetts, property owners customarily issue this notice in the event the tenant commits an illegal activity.
When beginning the eviction process, the property owner must file a Summons and Complaint with the court, which requires a filing fee. The court sets a hearing date once the sheriff's office serves the squatter with an eviction notice. If the court allows the eviction, it issues a Writ of Execution, the squatter's final notice to vacate, which gives them 48 hours before a sheriff forcibly removes them.
Jayne Thompson earned an LL.B. in Law and Business Administration from the University of Birmingham and an LL.M. in International Law from the University of East London. She practiced in various “Big Law” firms before launching a career as a commercial writer. Her work has appeared on numerous legal blogs including Quittance, Upcounsel and Medical Negligence Experts.