When your tenant remains on your property without paying rent, he’s called a holdover tenant, also known as a tenancy at sufferance.
But you can also consider him to be a squatter – a person who unlawfully occupies property you own.
Sometimes squatters hold a certain attitude, as if they have rights to your property. And depending on the circumstances, and the local laws, they sometimes do.
That’s right! If a squatter has been allowed to occupy a property for some time, they might have the same landlord-tenant rights as holdover tenants.
Some jurisdictions are friendlier to squatters than others are. San Francisco, for example, has a tenants’ union that helps squatters stay on your property.
A Common Problem
Pay attention to this case, particularly if you live in the California:
Two brothers, using Airbnb, rented a Palm Springs vacation condo for six weeks. Once they were in, they texted the owner that they would not be leaving after the six weeks because they legally had the right to stay.
And sure enough, California does a have a law stating that people who live on a property longer than 30 days are tenants. Unfortunately, as liberal as California is, it’s not the only state with this law.
The owner in this case could not kick out her squatters after the six-week period. She hired a lawyer to evict them, a time-consuming and costly endeavor that landlords typically want to avoid like the plague. To add insult to injury, many rogue tenants decide to trash the place before departing as one last sign of disrespect.
What about Trespassers?
Let’s say you have rental property that has been vacant and you haven’t been to visit it for a while. When you do go … surprise! You find some uninvited and unwelcome residents living there. Can you kick them out?
It depends. In some cities, if squatters turned on utilities at that address in their name, they might be able to claim residency. Even though these people are stealing your property, the police consider this a civil, not a criminal, matter.
To get the squatters out, you would need to open a court case. Fun, huh? You probably know that most court systems aren’t exactly the epitome of efficiency. The case could take months or even years to resolve.
This is the dark side of landlording, and it’s a huge flaw in the justice system.
What You Can’t Do
If you find an unwelcome squatter living on your property or if you have a tenant who stopped paying rent, you can’t do the following:
- Put padlocks on the place to keep him out
- Shut off utilities
- Try to intimidate him in any way
Courts could view those acts as self-help, or illegal, and could fine you.
Regarding shutting off utilities, it’s probably better to keep them on anyway. Your squatter might improvise by using candles that could start a fire. He also might continue to use the bathroom facilities … even when they aren’t working. Enough said there.
What You Should Do
Try to avoid a squatter situation from happening. If you plan to leave your property vacant, make sure that it’s secure. You or a property management company should also check on the place regularly.
If you already have a squatter, here’s what you could do:
- Call the Police
Act immediately if you discover a squatter by calling the police. The longer you wait, the more likely it will be for the courts to think you gave this person consent to be there. If the police declare this a civil matter and won’t remove the squatter, start the eviction process.
- Give Notice, and then File an Unlawful Detainer action
Once you serve the eviction notice, you could get lucky, and the squatter might leave. If not, you’ll need to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit, which is the formal way to evict. Make sure you follow your state’s laws.
- Hire the Sheriff to Force the Squatter Out
If the squatter is still sticking around after you’ve won your lawsuit, you’ll need to pay for a sheriff or police officer to get him out.
- Legally Handle the Abandoned Personal Property
Find out what you can and cannot do with any stuff the squatter might have left behind. You probably can’t just get rid of it and would need to follow proper procedure for your jurisdiction. Many times, you can place it in a storage unit at the tenant’s expense. If they don’t pay to remove the items, the storage facility will auction it off.
Property owners need to do what they can to protect themselves against squatters.
Unfortunately, the law favors squatters by treating them as tenants even though this is unfair to owners. It places the hardship on legal owners instead of on wrongful squatters. Until there are laws that give landlords immediate relief and that punish the squatters, we’ll see this problem continue.
Have you ever had a problem with a squatter? If so, share your story in the comments below.