Squatter’s Rights in California

Squatting presents a big problem to many landowners in the United States, California included. It is not unheard of for a tenant to overstay their rental agreement then claim to have squatter’s rights. When this happens, the landowner faces an all too real threat of losing their land.

Squatter’s Rights in California are very specific and unique to the State, and if you own land here, you should be familiar with them. Understanding who a squatter is, how they can occupy your land, and how you can get it back can help you protect your landowner rights.

Quick Facts about Squatters in California

  • Minimum occupation time: 5 years
  • Taxes: Payable during the period of occupation.
  • Color of title: Not a requirement.
  • Getting rid of a squatter: Renting, paying to leave, eviction.

Who Is Considered a Squatter in California?

A squatter in California is anyone who lives and keeps their personal property on a foreclosed, abandoned or unoccupied piece of land without the permission or knowledge of the landowner. While the person in question is not the landowner or a renter, squatting is very common and legal in the US.

What Are Holdover Tenants?

A holdover tenant, or tenant at sufferance, is a tenant that maintains their stay on a property after their rental agreement has been terminated. The tenant is typically expected to keep paying rent at the current rates, and the landlord may accept these payments, despite the illegality of the occupancy. In such a case, the tenant is a tenant at will and can be evicted at any time.

If the landlord issues a notice to quit, however, the holdover tenant can be subject to an eviction lawsuit. They cannot then claim adverse possession to trigger squatter rights and, if they do, they can be deemed a criminal trespasser.

What Are the Squatting Laws in California?

As already mentioned, California has a unique set of squatters’ rights, which are coincidentally some of the strongest in the entire country. A squatter in the State must meet the following requirements to claim any ownership over a property: They must:

  • Pay property taxes for the property for at least five continuous years (the timeline for a former tenant begins on the lease termination date).
  • Maintain the condition of the property for at least five consecutive years.

Note: Contrary to popular opinion, a squatter need not be physically present on the property for five years to claim adverse possession of it. They only need to have maintained the condition of said property for at least the same duration.

How Can a Squatter Occupy Property in California?

A squatter can attempt to occupy a property by claiming adverse possession. To do this, the squatter must go through the following process:

Step 1: Establish a hostile claim by:

  • Being convinced that they are the property’s rightful owner (the squatter may claim an incorrect sale or deed).
  • Living on the property with or without knowledge of its ownership.
  • Understanding that they are trespassing.

Step 2: Take up residence on the property as if they own it.

Step 3: Make their existence on the property a matter of public knowledge.

Step 4: Using, living on, or maintaining the land for at least five continuous years.

Understanding Adverse Possession in California

A squatter in California can seek legal ownership of a property by claiming adverse possession. When this happens, they are not considered a criminal trespasser and can reside on the premises lawfully. The squatter’s occupation on the property must be the following five things before they can claim adverse possession:

  • Actual
  • Exclusive
  • Hostile
  • Open and notorious
  • Continuous

Do Property Taxes Have to Be Paid in California?

Yes. In California, a squatter must pay all the property fees, bills, and taxes required to maintain a property and claim its legal ownership. The payment must be continuous and should run for at least five years during the occupation. If the squatter fails to make tax payments, the landlord can legally evict them from the property.

How to Get Rid of Squatters in California

The laws regulating Squatter’s Rights in California allow a landlord to get rid of squatters on their property through one of the following three courses of action:

Option 1: Payment

While this is not ideal, you can try to pay a squatter to drop their adverse possession claim and leave your property. Best case scenario, they agree to move out, and you save yourself the stress and costs of a lengthy legal battle.

Option 2: Renting

If you prefer not to pay the squatter, you can permit them to reside on the property through a rental agreement. This option effectively terminates the adverse possession claim but can make it harder for you to remove the squatter from your property.

Option 3: Eviction

Finally, if all else fails, you can legally evict the squatter from your property. This process starts when you send the squatter a 3-day notice to quit and proceeds as follows:

  • Give the squatter 3 days from the service of the notice to move out of the property.
  • If they don’t comply within the timeline, file an eviction lawsuit with the local court.
  • Serve the squatter with the Complaint and Summons detailing the lawsuit.
  • If the squatter fails to respond to the Summons, file for a default judgment to regain possession of the land.
  • If they respond, attend the hearing, which will be set within 20 days.
  • If the judge rules in your favour, present the judgment to the local sheriff, who will give the squatter 5 days to move out.
  • If they don’t, the sheriff will physically remove them from the property.

Tips for Protecting Your Property in California

The best way to get rid of squatters on your property is never to make it possible to live on it in the first place. You can do this by:

  • Visiting your property regularly – A squatter claims ownership of a property because they have been residing on it for some time unchallenged. To prevent this from becoming a possibility, keep a close eye on your unoccupied lands.
  • Paying your taxes – You can maintain possession of your property if you can prove that you are the legal and rightful owner. This is done by paying your own property taxes every year.
  • Immediately responding to encroachment – If someone starts using or living on your property, arrange an immediate meeting with them. Don’t be shy to include an attorney.

Final Thoughts

Avoiding instances of squatting on your property is as easy as maintaining an edge over potential squatters. You can do this by paying all your property taxes every year, regularly checking in on your property, and addressing encroachments on your land promptly. Finally, familiarize yourself with the Squatter’s Rights in California, so you know exactly how to handle squatters.

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