The issue of "squatter's rights" has been in the news lately, with a number of horror stories from homeowners forced to undergo the lengthy eviction process for guests who simply won't leave. In other cases, families who are out of town or deployed may return to find that their home is now occupied by a total stranger -- with little legal recourse. What are squatter's rights, and what are your legal options if you find yourself the victim of an attempt at adverse possession? 

Adverse possession

The term "squatter's rights" refers to one of several types of the legal principle of adverse possession.  Adverse possession is essentially a way to acquire property – without paying money for it – by fulfilling several conditions over a period of time. Legally, adverse possession must fulfill the following requirements:

  1. Open and notorious – this means that the landowner is (or should be) aware that the property is being occupied by the would-be adverse possessor.
  2. Exclusive and continuous – meaning that the would-be adverse possessor maintains a continuous presence on the property (merely popping in and out every few years is insufficient). Also, if at any point the landowner attempts to reassert a claim to the land, the adverse possession clock starts over.

One common example of adverse possession deals with boundary or property-line issues. If you construct a fence that extends about 6" onto your neighbor's property and continue to maintain the land bordered by this fence, after a certain period of time (varying from state to state), the 6" that belonged to your neighbor may become yours.  

So what about squatter's rights?

When discussing squatter's rights, you are generally referring to someone actually living in a house -- rather than attempting to stake a claim to land. One example is a tenant who overstays his or her lease, or a houseguest who refuses to leave. Another example is a stranger who moves into an empty home while the homeowners are away for an extended period of time.

Although houseguests do not generally pay rent, there are laws in many states that provide that once a houseguest has stayed in your home for a certain period of time, he or she becomes a legal resident – so that rather than throwing your guest's belongings in the yard, you must file a motion for eviction. If you plan to have a houseguest, you may want to check your state laws to ensure that this guest's stay will not confer legal rights to them or legal obligations to you.

But what can you do about a bona fide squatter? Your first step should be to call the police. The police will make a determination as to whether the squatter has established legal rights to your home. If this is the case, you will need to consult an attorney to begin eviction proceedings. Visit websites like to learn more.