You may find it difficult to imagine a person who has no legal right to enter a property actually moving in and setting up a homestead. However, it happens more than you might think. If you or a family member has had this happen on your property, you must tackle the issue of reclaiming your land and protecting it from future misuse. What to do when a person illegally takes possession of your property is a challenging dilemma. As you face this issue, here’s what you should know about squatter’s rights.
What Is a Squatter?
A squatter is a person who lives on someone else’s property without the owner’s permission or knowledge. Typically, the property is abandoned or uninhabited by the owner. A squatter is different from a tenant or a guest because those individuals have the legal right to be on the other person’s property. For example:
- Tenants are authorized occupants listed on a legally binding agreement who pay rent and are bound by the lease terms; and
- Guests are invited to the property by an owner or tenant and stay for only a limited time.
Each definition involves a person staying on a property they do not own. The major difference between tenants and guests versus squatters is that a squatter is on the property without the owner’s knowledge or consent.
Rights of Possession For Squatters
It may seem contrary to your sense of justice, but Washington State law allows a squatter to actually claim legal rights to a piece of property if they possess the property a certain way and for a set amount of time. This is called an adverse possession claim. This means that squatters actually have the right to lay legal claim to a piece of property if they fulfill certain requirements. And if the court grants the squatter’s claim, they gain legal ownership of the property and are no longer considered to be a trespasser.
But what requirements does the court consider before giving a squatter such extraordinary rights? There are five elements to an adverse possession claim. The court reviews the totality of the circumstances to determine if all requirements are met.
1. Actual and Open Possession
The squatter must treat the property as if it were their own, in an “open and notorious” way. In other words, if someone walked by the property, would they assume that the squatter owns it? Establishing open possession can be achieved by continually caring for the property. Mowing the lawn, planting a garden, or building a fence are all indications of open and notorious use of the property. Other examples of open possession would be using the property to have barbecues with friends, or putting up a swing set for your kids. Any improvements made to the property can be used to prove actual possession.
2. Exclusive Possession
The squatter must be the only person occupying the property. This means that the trespasser cannot share possession with other tenants, other squatters, the true owner, strangers, or the public. If anyone else is on the property, it should be clear that they are a visitor or guest, and that the squatter is the main occupant.
3. Hostile Possession
Hostile, in relation to adverse possession claims, means that the squatter does not have permission to occupy the land. The squatter’s use of the property must be adverse to the owner’s interests. If the landowner authorized the squatter to use the property, then that would not be hostile possession.
4. Possess Property for Statutory Period
Under Washington law, a squatter must occupy the property for 10 years to bring an adverse possession claim. However, if the squatter pays property taxes on the land, the statutory period is only seven years.
5. Continuous and Uninterrupted Use of the Property
During the entire statutory period, the squatter must possess the property as described above. His or her use of the land must be actual and open, exclusive, and hostile at all times. If the squatter stops using it in that way for an extended period of time, the 10-year clock starts over.
Courts do allow what is known as “tacking” the time between adverse possessors. For example, if a squatter used the land for five years and then a second squatter used it for another five years, they could tack their time together and satisfy the statutory time period of 10 years.
Exceptions to the Adverse Possession Law
One uncommon exception to this rule is related to the competency or availability of the true landowner. Adverse possession may not be granted even if the squatter took all steps above if the property owner is:
- Deployed, or
If the landowner falls into one of these categories, the 10-year statutory time period will not start, or will “toll” (i.e., stop), until the owner is no longer under that condition. In these cases, the court may provide the owner additional time to gain control over their property and prevent adverse possession claims. This is a rare exception that is best presented by a law firm with substantial real estate law experience.
Preventing Squatters’ Claims
Being proactive to protect your property should always be a priority. You should:
- Inspect the property regularly;
- Always pay your property taxes;
- Make sure that the property is secured by blocking all entrances, closing all windows, and locking doors and outbuildings; and
- Post “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it’s currently unoccupied.
However, even with these steps in place, you may find yourself battling a squatter’s rights claim.
Legal Help for the Property Owner
If you are faced with an adverse possession claim or squatter who is on your land, hire Real estate matters attorneys who know how to provide effective solutions. They can help you take a few immediate steps including:
- Serving written notice to vacate as soon as you see that squatters are present; and
- Helping you notify the appropriate law enforcement office (this is often the sheriff rather than local police) to help you.
If these steps do not resolve your issue, our legal team will take all legal actions necessary to protect your property and your rights. Without this representation, you could find yourself permanently losing your property to a squatter. Get legal advice and representation immediately if you find your property is at risk.
Blando Kiger Bolan, P.S.: Putting People First
The lawyers with Blando Kiger Bolan, P.S., take a straightforward approach to the law. Whether you are facing an extremely convoluted situation that demands complex legal solutions or a simpler dispute, we stand ready to assist you.
For decades our Tacoma-based practice has provided quality legal services. We believe in practicing law with integrity and honesty, and these values remain the key characteristics of our work ethic. We invite you to come and visit us at Blando Kiger Bolan, P.S., when you need legal assistance. You can make an appointment online or by calling 253-272-2997. We look forward to serving you!