Squatter Rights in California

November 30, 2021

We are all familiar with that one relative who wouldn’t leave for weeks after a family gathering. Staying with them makes it uncomfortable to some extent, and you don’t know how to tell them to leave.

This is the case if someone decides your property is theirs. This situation is unlike your cousin’s, and the person is here to claim your property and make it theirs.

A squatter is someone who unlawfully occupies a vacant building or unutilized land. This is done without discussing it with the actual owner of the property.

Each state across the US, has different laws when it comes to squatters, continue reading this article to understand Squatter Rights in California.

Who is a squatter in Californian law?

Could you be a squatter? Anyone trespassing could be considered a squatter. You are a squatter if:

  • You are past due on your rent payment.
  • You have a faulty deed claiming ownership of the property.
  • You are homeless.

But worry no more. Squatter Rights in California legally allow a squatter to gain ownership of their property through a legal process.

Strap in as we walk you through the legal process and requirements.

Squatter and tenant rights

A squatter may enter a property through broken windows: for article Squatter Rights in California

California does not legally protect squatters from the police but does protect them as tenants. If a squatter proves that they own the property, then you will not be allowed to evict them.

Take note:

  • Even though they have legal rights, squatters can be arrested for trespassing if they do not fulfill the requirement for adverse possession.
  • Most homeless people take advantage of this law set in place to acquire a piece of property.
  • Squatters can take ownership of your property by claiming it with fake documents. This is known as “adverse possession.” If these documents are valid, they cannot be removed from the property.

Of course, there are rules for this advantageous law.

  • The property must not have been used for a squatter to claim legal possession. Otherwise, you would wake up to someone on your couch claiming to own the place.
  • If someone makes an improvement or renovation to a previously abandoned property, they could avoid prosecution for trespassing.
  • Someone accessing it due to an emergency, i.e., natural disasters or personal safety, can be exempted from trespassing.

Squatter Rights in California: Why do they have rights?

The law protects the squatter from forceful eviction by the owner of the property. It gives the uninvited guest a chance to justify their claim.

It is important as a land or property owner to understand squatter rights and avoid being a victim.

California is one of the hardest states to acquire a house in. This forces people to use loopholes to acquire property.

Squatting is, therefore, common practice, and they may even establish a stronger claim than the owner.

The legal process for a squatter

A squatter can claim your property legally through adverse possession. This is an exception for holdover tenants.

Holdover tenants are tenants living past the lease. They have the option of continuing to pay the agreed rent or facing eviction by the owner. They are required to leave if the owner gives them an eviction notice and they are not legally legible for an adverse possession claim. They are tenants at will if they continue paying rent.

How to acquire property through adverse possession:

Californian law requires the person to have been on the property for at least 5 years before making an adverse possession claim. This is music to the ears, as other states might require a 30-year minimum stay! After this, it nullifies their being trespassers.

However, there are legal requirements that have to be met before claiming adverse possession. Otherwise, someone would just say they had been waiting five years. Possession could be:

  1. Hostile
  2. Actual
  3. Continuous
  4. Exclusive
  5. Open and well-known

The government prefers occupied property to avoid waste. This ensures home maintenance and tax payments.

  • Hostile possession

This doesn’t necessarily mean violent or rough possession of the property. A court defines hostile possession as the owner’s understanding that they are aware or unaware that someone owns the property.

  1. Mistaken possession of property can be hostile. Someone may live their entire life believing that their backyard is theirs, only to discover that it belongs to their neighbor.
  2. By simple occupation, the intruder doesn’t know that the land belongs to someone.
  3. By awareness of trespassing, the intruder knows that the land belongs to someone, meaning they have no legal right to be there.
  • Actual possession

This applies when someone moves into a property and maintains it. Maintenance could be in the form of landscaping, house renovation, or tax payment.

They are physically present and treat the place as their own. They can justify actual possession by providing documentation proving their efforts at property maintenance.

This is a step ahead of the actual owner, who would infrequently stop by or use it for other purposes.

  • Continuous possession

The squatter must have stayed at the property for a period of 5 years. If they were a tenant at the time, they are entitled to adverse possession five years after the tenancy ended.

They can't leave the property for a while and then return to claim it. This also calls for proof of residence for the period they were there.

  • Exclusive possession

Their stay is required to be singular, allowing no sharing of the property with other residents.

  • Open and well-known possession 

The squatter makes it obvious to the neighbors and maybe even the owner that they occupy the property.

The owner might even be open to an investigation as the residents make it their land.

The state of California requires squatters and residents to pay taxes, fees, and bills to maintain the property. To gain ownership of any property and be eligible for an adverse possession claim, they have to do all these things.

The legal process for a land or property owner:

You visit your vacation getaway home in California and find that someone has moved in. As much as you would like to throw out the occupant, there is a legal process under squatter rights.

If you are a landlord, it is important for you to understand the legal rights of a squatter and the legal way to go about them.

Californian law favors the owners of properties as long as they are taking care of the property and paying the necessary taxes and fees.

There are two courses of action:

  • Talk to the occupant

Finding out why the resident is on your property in the first place could easily solve the tight situation.

This is a risky step if the occupants are hostile and violent, but it is more to the good side. It is important to have a witness as you approach because a false statement might be used against you.

When handling the situation, do not use force on the residents or cut off their utilities. This is to avoid further legal implications.

The invaders could be there for explainable reasons.

  • Escaping from danger, for example, they were on the run from someone trying to harm them.
  • They were taking cover from a storm or natural disaster. Perhaps they were staying there because their house had been ruined by the same thing.
  • You could also negotiate with the residents for a rented stay if it's to your convenience. This would give them the legal right to stay at the property and pay rent. It would also prevent adverse possession, as it is done with the owner’s permission.
  • Alternatively, as the last option, you could pay them to leave. This doesn’t sound ideal for the situation, but it will save you more money and time.
  • Take legal action.

If you have a bad feeling about the residents or are infuriated by their sudden occupation, you could take legal action.

  • Inform the authorities.

Call the police for an investigation into trespassing. If the squatter takes the path to legal action, this will be used in court as evidence that you took legal action. The court will send the police over to evict them if they are wrongfully residing on your property.

  • Give an eviction notice

To legally deal with a squatter file an eviction

If the squatter makes it difficult to move out, give them a formal eviction notice. This proves that you took a step towards a non-violent approach to the matter.

  • File a lawsuit

If the eviction notice falls on deaf ears, you can file an unlawful detainer suit. Sometimes, when you present the right documentation, they are immediately and lawfully evicted.

You will need a lawyer in case a non-profit organization is behind settling the squatters, which is sometimes the case. It is also necessary in case the squatter has filed an adverse possession claim on your property.

If they do not show up for the court proceedings, you are legally given ownership and the occupants get evicted.

  • Attend court proceedings

If they show up for the court session, a hearing would be scheduled within 20 days. You will get your property back if you have the right documentation or if the squatter doesn’t provide enough documentation.

  • Inform the local sheriff

You have won the case. Do not forcefully move back into your place, but take the jurisdiction to your sheriff. A 5-day notice will be put in place, after which the squatter will be forcefully removed.

During the whole waiting period, do not go back to your property or move anything. This is to avoid a suit from the occupant saying you damaged or stole items of theirs.

How can I avoid squatters on my property?

Secure your house with security cameras to prevent squatters, for article Squatter Rights in California

To avoid having to take legal action against a squatter or the squatter taking action against you, it is important to avoid the situation in the first place.

  • Regularly inspect your property.

Carefully inspect your property for a break-in or signs that you are sharing the property with someone else.

You could also ask a neighbor to watch your house for you when you are not around.

  • Protect your property.

Most places inhabited by squatters are abandoned houses with little or no security. Secure your property and lock it to show a sense of ownership.

  • Put up a no trespassing sign.

If you are not going to be a frequent visitor to your property, put up a sign to warn against trespassing.

  • Rent the property

Offer to rent the property to any present squatters or to the general public to utilize it.

If you live far away, you could enlist your property with a property management company. They would do routine checks on the property. They would also take legal action against any squatter, making your life simpler.

  • Hire a lawyer.

This is in case you need to take legal action against someone who would occupy your property.

While you may assume that a squatter is a homeless individual, this is not always the case. Estate disputes and holdover tenants from previous properties might invade your property.

Most of the time, they are fully aware of their actions and have an end goal. It is therefore advisable to have a strong legal presence in the form of a hired lawyer.

Visit the California Legislative Information website for more information on legal squatter rights.

Note:

The “color of title”

This is the case where someone has acquired property without one or more pieces of the necessary documentation.

This forces a belief that they actually own the property. Sometimes, fraudsters can sell off your land to someone else.

The state of California does not honor the color of title claims unless they apply to the situation.

Disability

If the owner is disabled in terms of age, health, or is locked up, there is a law that allows them to acquire it back.

They have a longer period of 20 years to reclaim their property and prevent an adverse possession claim. This means that the squatter's waiting period has been increased from 5 to 20 years.

Taxes and bills

Even if you are not present at the property, you must always pay your taxes and bills. This is to provide documentation that you have been maintaining the property.

If you find out that a squatter has been doing the same, do not stop paying your taxes all the same.

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