The unthinkable has happened—someone is living in a vacation home, a rental, or another one of your properties without your permission. You may or may not know how they got access, but the end result is the same—you need to get them out. But how?
Read on to find out how to legally remove a squatter from your property.
Step 1: Determine if They’re a Squatter or Tenant
It’s critical to understand the differences between a squatter and a tenant, since several states have one removal process for squatters and a separate removal process for tenants.
Squatters are people who move into a property that they don’t have any legal right to live in—no lease/rental agreement and no permission from the property owner/landlord to live there.
The property may be vacant, foreclosed upon, in-between renters, a vacation rental, an occupied home/rental unit, commercial property, or even public land.
The type of property itself doesn’t matter—only the fact that someone is living on the property without the legal right to do so.
A squatter could be someone who:
- Broke into the property and now intends to live there
- Was a guest, roommate, friend, or family member who has taken possession of a property they have no right to
- Is unknown to the property owner/landlord, but was invited by someone else to stay at the property and now refuses to leave
Often, but not always, the squatter manages to obtain sole possession of the property (meaning they’ve managed to remove anyone else who was legally living there) through fraud, intimidation, or force.
A tenant is typically someone with a written or verbal agreement to pay rent in order to live in the rental unit for a set period of time. Subtenants typically have a written or verbal agreement to rent all or part of the rental unit from the current tenant.
Tenants and subtenants have a legal right to live in the rental unit and must be evicted through your state’s eviction, unlawful detainer, ejectment, or summary proceedings laws, depending on what they’re called in your state.
In some states, if a person lives with you but doesn’t pay rent and doesn’t have a set date on which they must move out or pay rent, they could be considered a tenant-at-will.
Holdover tenants are tenants who had a written or verbal lease, but the lease has expired and the tenant remains in the rental unit.
Holdover tenants and tenants-at-will. Many states don’t consider someone who truly had a landlord-tenant relationship with the property owner as a squatter, and lump removing tenants-at-will and holdover tenants in with their normal eviction procedures.
However, that’s not the case for all states, so it’s important to seek legal counsel if you’re unsure whether a holdover tenant or a tenant-at-will could be considered a squatter in your state.
Step 2: Contact Law Enforcement / Give the Squatter Notice
In a few states, like Arizona, all you need to do to get rid of a squatter is call law enforcement to remove the party from the premises. In other states, it’s not that easy.
Many states require property owners to take the squatters to court in order to remove them. You may or may not be required to give the squatter written notice to move out of the property, depending on the state.
If the property in question is located in a state that does NOT require written notice, you can file an action with the court to remove the squatter as soon as you become aware of the issue.
In states that do require written notice, depending on where the property’s located, you may have to give squatters up to 2 weeks (or longer) to leave the property. In Tennessee, for example, “unauthorized” persons (aka squatters) must be given a 3-Day Notice to Quit.
Once the time period on the notice has passed, you’ll finally be able to file a court case to have the squatters removed.
Step 3: File a Court Action (if Required)
In those states that require court involvement to remove a squatter, you must wait until any compliance deadline (as included on the notice) has passed. Once the deadline has passed, you’ll need to understand which type of court case to file against the squatter.
It’s important to get this right, since some types of cases can only be filed if there’s never been a landlord/tenant relationship, and others can only be filed if there has been a landlord/ tenant relationship. Keep in mind, the correct case type will vary by state.
Unlawful Detainer / Eviction / Summary Possession Actions
These are typically the cases that come to mind when you think of the word “eviction,” and many states use the same process for removing unwanted occupants as they do for removing tenants from a rental unit.
Often in these states, you’re allowed to “evict” the squatter for not paying rent to live on the property.
Other states won’t allow you to file an eviction action if there has never been a landlord/tenant relationship between you and the squatters.
Forcible Entry and/or Detainer
Forcible entry or forcible detainer cases are often defined as someone entering the rental unit either peacefully or forcefully who now refuses to leave.
However, to count as “forcible,” the unwanted occupant must use force to remove the rightful occupant/owner from the property, OR they must threaten to use force against the rightful occupant/owner in order to remain on the property.
There is typically NO landlord/tenant relationship in these cases.
Writ of Possession Actions
In New Jersey, a Writ of Possession Action can be filed if there’s no landlord/tenant relationship.
These cases can typically only be filed when there’s no established landlord/tenant relationship.
They’re also the only case type on this list that’s criminal (not civil), and as a result, the person could also face jail time in addition to being removed from the property.
In Kansas, for example, a trespasser will be sentenced to a minimum of 48 hours in jail.
Special Procedures Just for Squatters
A few states have special procedures just to remove squatters. For instance, in Colorado, if the property is vacant or currently uninhabited, AND the person occupying the property is NOT:
- Related to the landlord/property owner
- Someone who previously had permission to be on the property
- Someone who paid rent previously to remain at the property
Then the property owner can file a request for an injunction that will be heard within 1 business day of being filed, and if granted, the party will be removed within 24 hours of the judicial officer granting the injunction.
Be sure you understand which type of case you need to file to remove a squatter in the state in which the property is located—otherwise, it’s possible that your case could be dismissed.
File Court Documents
This means filling out paperwork explaining why you want to remove the squatter from your property. Many states will also want you to provide the court with a copy of the eviction notice, if you were required to give one to the squatter(s).
Serve Court Documents on the Squatter
Depending on the state, you may be required to serve a copy of the case documents and a summons to attend any hearing on the person you want to remove.
It’s okay if you don’t know the names of the squatters—most states allow you to put something like “John Doe,” “Jane Doe,” or “all occupants,” in the fields requiring names.
Some of the most commonly allowed delivery methods include:
- Hand-delivering the summons to the unwanted occupant
- Posting a copy of the summons in a conspicuous place at the property
- Mailing a copy of the summons to the property
These methods vary slightly from state to state, so make sure you understand what’s acceptable in your state.
It might seem silly to go through all this trouble to remove a squatter, but if the court paperwork isn’t served correctly, or within the required time frame, your case could be dismissed.
Step 4: Attend the Hearing
In those states that require a court hearing to remove a squatter, the person who filed the court case is typically required to attend the hearing or the case will be dismissed.
Make sure you bring any evidence with you, such as ownership documents, signed lease documents with the rightful tenants, or any other items which will show that the squatters are not on the property with your consent.
Again, it might seem silly that you have to prove the squatter has no right to the property, but this is important because the squatter may present false or misleading documentation to the court in an attempt to prove they belong at the property, such as:
- Forged lease or mortgage documents
- Utility statements in their name at the property’s address
- Documents supposedly from you giving them permission to live there
If the court rules in your favor, then the squatter must leave the property and, depending on the state, may be forcibly removed by law enforcement officials.
Step 5: Squatter is Removed
Depending on the state, the squatter may be removed by law enforcement officials or other authorized personnel.
It may take a few additional days after the hearing for the order for removal to be issued by the court, and law enforcement may be given additional time after that before they need to remove the squatter.
Prevention. Once the squatter is off your property, be sure to change the locks and fix any broken windows or other access points to the property. And, check in on all your properties on a regular basis so you’re aware of any unusual or suspicious activity right away.
Evicting / Removing a Squatter
Below is a summary of how to remove a squatter.
- Determine if the person’s a squatter or tenant.
- Contact law enforcement/deliver an eviction notice (if required).
- File a court action to remove the squatter (if required).
- Attend the hearing (if a hearing is required).
- Squatter is removed by court order.