A squatter is an individual who occupies a piece of uninhabited property without permission, and different rules apply depending on your state. If you are in Alabama we have a detailed guide on Squatter Rights.
The definition of a Squatter opens up a few scenarios:
- A tenant who stops paying rent but continues to reside at the property.
- Someone who was conned into paying rent for a random unoccupied house.
- Someone who breaks into a building and makes it their own.
- A roommate who stays in a room after their lease expires
- Anyone believing that they have a right to a piece of property that isn’t necessarily theirs. I.e., invading neighbors.
As much as you'd want to kick an intruder out by even cutting off their utilities, you’d be surprised to learn that doing so might be illegal.
Continue reading this article to find out the ins and outs of the question: Can I Turn Off Utilities on a Squatter?
Trespassing or squatting?
Trespassing is often confused with squatting. They are similar but different to a large extent.
In both situations, someone enters a piece of property without the owner’s permission. However, there is a legal and time difference in the manner in which it is done.
Trespassing is usually for a short period of time where the intruder isn’t trying to stay. For example, thieves, curious kids, urban explorers, or even people on the wrong side of the law.
Squatting, on the other hand, is where they stay for a period of time and even try to claim the property.
Trespassers can be removed from the property by the police and prosecuted as criminals, but squatters have a different legal approach.
As much as you would want to remove or make the squatters uncomfortable by cutting off their utilities, squatters have rights.
The squatters’ rights
The intruder staying on your property has rights and a legal advantage that might even make the property theirs. A hard pill to swallow.
These rights are a result of the 1862 Homestead Act and are subject to the law of adverse possession.
It is essential to act quickly but legally, as the squatter can lawfully acquire your property.
The law of adverse possession
This is a type of property transfer where a person may acquire someone else’s property. As much as this sounds simple, the law states minimum requirements that have to be met in order for an adverse possession claim to be filed.
Each state has different guidelines and regulations on this process. It is essential to understand your state’s laws on adverse possession.
The squatter’s stay has to be:
Legally, the term “hostile” has three definitions, not necessarily relating to violence.
This is where the squatter doesn’t know that the land belongs to someone.
In this case, the squatter knows that the property has an owner but they still occupy it with the intention of claiming it.
An incorrect deed or paperwork mistake could make someone occupy someone’s property knowing it’s theirs.
The squatter must physically be on the property and treat it like it is theirs. They should do the necessary maintenance, including landscaping and house renovations wherever possible.
The squatter shouldn’t share the property with other squatters who might also have the intention of claiming it.
This also goes for sharing the property with the owner
The squatter’s stay should be for the minimum amount of time stated by the state’s laws.
They can’t at one point leave and come back later to reclaim the property.
Open and well-known
The squatters shouldn’t try to hide the fact that they stayed at the property.
It should be evident to everyone that they are there, even if they are not the owner.
When can’t a squatter claim property?
Even with the minimum requirements for adverse possession, the rule can’t always apply in all situations.
Don’t worry about leaving your neighbor to watch your house while you’re on vacation.
The law doesn’t allow an adverse possession claim to be made if the owner has given permission.
Most of the time, relatives try to claim their families’ property. Some state laws do not recognize this, as it is assumed that they are there with the owner’s permission.
Squatting isn’t allowed on government property. Doing this will cause even more harm than good, and the intruder might even be imprisoned.
Most government-owned properties have a “No Trespassing” sign, hence doing so is trespassing.
The waiting time for adverse possession in some states is reduced by tax payment.
The squatter must have paid taxes for the minimum amount of time required by the state. There are serious implications if you are found to not be paying your property taxes.
If this is not so, the squatter cannot file an adverse possession claim.
The law considers legal disability in some situations.
If the landowner is in prison, underage, mentally unstable, or legally incompetent, they are given a period of time to claim their property.
This length of time varies from state to state.
These are tenants that remain at the property after their lease has ended. They are to continue paying rent at the current rate.
If the landlord chooses, they can collect rent where the tenant will be a tenant at will.
However, if the landlord asks them to leave, they must do so. The landlord can file an unlawful detainer suit when the tenant makes it hard to leave.
Holdover tenants cannot file an adverse possession claim as they were at the property with a signed lease. They also share the property with the owner or other tenants, which goes against the guidelines for adverse possession.
You might be tempted to let the intruder on your land stay, hoping they’ll leave at their convenience. As a landowner, you should not let squatters stay uncontested.
Many states allow squatters the right to claim your property, and whether or not it is apparent, you must act quickly.
The squatters might cause you emotional and physical stress.
- Your property will be damaged.
An intruder won’t value your house items as much as you do. There is no doubt that broken windows and appliances will be a common occurrence.
Repairing these damages once you reclaim your property might be costly and time-consuming.
- You will spend a lot of money.
Depending on your property’s utilities, the price can shoot up due to their increased use or misuse. You will end up covering the extra bills in the long run.
The eviction process is also expensive, involving lawyers and lawsuits.
- They might acquire your property.
If you give the squatters room to file an adverse possession claim, they might eventually get through with it.
Can I Turn Off Utilities on a Squatter?
Having known that a squatter has rights, there is a legal process that must be followed to evict them. There are dos and don’ts in this situation.
Doing this does more harm than good. The law sees this as taking matters into your own hands and trying to self-evict the squatters.
The squatters might even continue living on your property even after you do so.
Therefore, even if the utilities are in your name and the cost incurred is yours to cover, it is illegal to turn them off.
Do not use violence against them.
It is illegal to fight for your ownership by physically removing the squatters.
It is important to follow the legal path as infuriated as you are. This is not only a safe option but also the right one.
Do not change your locks.
As much as it makes sense to cut off their access to your property, doing this is illegal. If they can prove that they own the property, you will be considered a trespasser.
Do not touch their belongings.
It is illegal to kick them out by throwing out their items.
Even after they are evicted, there is a legal process to be followed to get their belongings out.
How to Evict a Squatter
Now that you know that turning off their utilities is illegal, it is vital to know the legal way to handle the situation.
Each state has different laws on how to handle squatter evictions. This is in terms of the time period for eviction notices and the cost of filing lawsuits.
- Inform the authorities.
When you find out that someone is intruding on your property, do not engage them. Instead, call the police on them for both your safety and convenience.
The fact that you called the police shows that you followed the legal process for squatter eviction.
The police will determine whether they are trespassers or legal squatters, provided they show the necessary documents
2. Give an eviction notice
If they do not leave, give an eviction notice as per the stated period of time in your state. Most of the time, this is a 3-day notice.
If the intruder has a potential case for adverse possession, you could consult a lawyer to guide you through the process
3. File a lawsuit with the court.
If they do not leave, file an unlawful detainer suit. This gives both the owner and the squatter a chance to prove through legal documents that they are the rightful owners.
If one of the parties does not attend the court session, the other person’s claim is overruled.
Most of the time, the judge rules in favor of the owner of the squatter hasn’t met the requirements for adverse possession
After the court has ruled in your favor, you are not supposed to go back to your property. This final judgment should be presented to the sheriff, who will post a notice asking them to vacate.
They will be forcibly removed if they continue to stay at your property.
How to Protect Your Property from Squatters
Getting rid of squatters is without doubt cumbersome. Therefore, it is important to prevent these incidents from happening in the first place.
Good security is a turn-down for all invading squatters. The majority of victims' homes have little or no security.
You need to have all entrances secured by having reinforced locks and deadbolts. A good and strong perimeter wall or fence, accompanied by CCTV surveillance, will alert you of suspicious activities.
You can put someone on your property to safeguard against intruders. Asking a relative or neighbor while you’re away is a quick and safe option.
Don’t worry about losing the property to them; it is, of course, with your permission that they are there in the first place.
Some states have a lower waiting period for an adverse possession claim than others.
It is therefore important to visit your property as often as you can. This is that there is no one settled on it.
- Property management companies
If you will be away from your property for an extended period of time, it is advisable to place your property under the management of a property management firm.
They will pay regular visits to your property and also ensure its safety. You could also have multiple services on your property done, like lawn mowing and hedge trimming.
Summary: Can I Turn Off Utilities on a Squatter?
A squatter is a legal term for an individual or person who settles on or lodges on a property without permission that they do not own.
Each state across the US has different rules and regulations when it comes to observing Squatter Rights and it's essential you are aware of the laws in the state you reside in.
Squatters' can be avoided on properties, but landlords and property owners must remain cautious. Installing security systems that can be linked with a mobile phone will allow property owners to keep an eye on their home from whatever distance.
To simply answer the question, can I turn off utilities on a squatter the legal answer is no. Turning off utilities can be seen as taking the law into your own hands to aim to self-evict squatters, which in the end can do more harm than good.
Even if the utilities are in your name and the bills are registered under your name, it is illegal to turn them off.