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Squatter rights PA: 5 requirements for adverse possession claims

Richard Latimer

February 23, 2021

Squatter’s rights in Philadelphia PA; What are squatter rights in PA?

Although it sounds more like a colloquial designation, a squatter represents a well-defined legal term. Basically, anyone who takes residence in a foreclosed, abandoned, or an empty piece of property can be considered a squatter.

The person occupying cannot claim any legal ownership of the property in question. 

However, squatting in the United States is not a criminal act, and the people engaging in this practice have well-defined rights. 

Squatter rights in PA can vary from those of other states, so be sure to check your local laws. This post will mostly be referencing PA, Philadelphia laws.

Legall issues regarding  squatter rights PA

Intuition dictates that going on private property without permission would represent trespassing. Since the basis of squatting is trespassing, doesn’t it make it a criminal offense?

The legal reality is more complicated, and squatting isn’t necessarily a criminal offense in itself. Unlike trespassing, it is treated only as a civil matter at first. Yet, after the owner has notified the squatter that he/she is unwelcome, he can be treated as a trespasser.

Trespassers, squatters, and Licensees represent different categories.

Squatter Rights Vs Trespassing

The following points must be considered: 

  1. In an attempt to not be evicted from the property, squatters have been known to make false ownership claims. Although rare, some may even attempt to forge ownership documents and other misleading papers. Even unsuccessful attempts at forgery are still highly illegal. 
  2. Squatter rights in PA are well-defined and well-known. Anything outside these boundaries is not covered. Adverse possession standards must be met to avoid the trespasser status. Trespassers can be arrested.
  1. Recent years have seen a worrisome rise in the number of homeless people. Some of these individuals may try to use PA squatter rights to avoid living on the streets. In general, people who could not afford to pay a mortgage or rent will consider squatting as an option.

Mitigating circumstances:

  1. If the squatter attempts to enhance and improve the property, he/she may be exempt from the trespasser status. These improvements may include a successful effort to clean and tidy the property, planting aesthetically-pleasing flowers, repainting walls, removing mold, etc.
  2. If the squatter situation represents an immediate emergency, the person squatting can avoid the trespasser designation. What constitutes an immediate emergency can be a little hard to define, so the landlord is advised to consult with a lawyer. 
  3. For the legal framework of squatter rights PA to apply, the property must not be currently occupied. 

Squatter rights in PA regarding Renters and tenants 

Renters and tenants often sign a lease that details their agreement. That lease has a specific expiration date. 

At that time, the landlord has the opportunity to rethink the contract and decide if he/she wants to prolong it. Also, many landlords and tenants can choose not to sign a new lease and just continue the arrangement without it. 

This situation can be dangerous for the tenant, as the lease protects this party from becoming a “tenant at will.” This status signifies that you are on the property by the landlord’s will and have no legal rights aside from this permission. 

At any moment, the landlord can change his mind and evict you without the need to notify you before. Some landlords can lure their tenants into this position with the promise of skipping agency fees and lawyer fees, promising just to maintain a verbal understanding. 

These verbal agreements can lead to serious disputes if the relationship between the parties deteriorates. Even with agreements between relatives, disputes are relatively common. 

If an eviction notification has been received, the renter is obligated to leave the property. If the order to evict is refused, the tenant will be considered a criminal trespasser.  

Adverse Possession squatter rights in PA

Adverse possession is the concept that a squatter can eventually claim ownership of a property if he/she has been residing on that property for a certain amount of years. 

Again, it must be said that laws can vary depending on your state, and this advice applies explicitly to Pennsylvania. 

Squatter rights PA dictates that an adverse possession claim can be made after 21 years of property occupation. This period must be continuous and not an aggregate of the total time spent. 

This situation will spare the squatter from being declared a criminal trespasser, granting him/her the right to remain on the property.

United States law specifies five distinct conditions that must be met before an adverse possession claim can be made. If any of these conditions are not present, the squatter’s status cannot improve.

  1. Hostile claims

The term “hostile” often implies physical violence of some variety. Yet, the definition can be broader in a legal context.

  •  Simple occupation -  In this case, violent intent is irrelevant. Sometimes, the squatter may simply occupy the land without prior knowledge of it being owned by someone else. A majority of localities apply this definition.
  • Awareness of Trespassing - As the name suggests, this situation involves a squatter aware that he/she is a squatter. They cannot claim ignorance of the fact that they have no rights to the property.
  • Good faith mistake -  in this situation, the occupant is making a mistake and is unaware of his/her status as a squatter. They may be the victim of an accidental or intentional error, using an invalid deed. Not many states use this definition, yet it is good to be aware of it. 
Squatter Rights Pa
  1. Actual possession

This condition requires the squatter to live on the property and take on some of the owner’s responsibilities. In essence, they are acting as if they owned the property. 

This can include repairs to the structures and other maintenance-related tasks. Personalization efforts such as pictures, household plants, and gardening can also validate this condition. 

The criteria are met when the squatter proves possession and ownership via his/her lifestyle. 

  1. Open and notorious possession

No party involved in a dispute regarding squatter rights PA should be able to claim ignorance. It is not viable to attempt to hide your presence as a squatter. If the owner decides to visit or inspect the property, it should be evident that someone is living on it. 

Of course, if the aforementioned actual possession criteria are met, then the issue should be obvious. Maintenance and aesthetic improvements are not hard to notice.  

If the open and notorious possession standards are not met, you can be treated as a criminal trespasser. 

  1. Exclusive possession

As the name suggests, the squatter has to be the only one squatting on that property. For example, if a group of homeless people moves onto a property, they cannot claim Adverse Possession.

This standard even applies to the landlord, strangers, legal tenants, etc. There are no exceptions, and the exclusive possession criterion must be met. It is not optional.

  1. Continuous possession 

An intermittent possession of the property will not be recognized. A squatter must occupy the area for 21 years without any pause. A pause is not legally recognized, and an eventual return will not be added to the time already spent before departing. 

There are states in which the squatter is required to pay some amount of property tax to be considered eligible. The laws need to be verified. 

However, if you are only interested in squatter rights PA, you do not need to consider these taxes.

As a final mention, “color of title” may be a common term used regarding PA squatter rights. Unlike previous conditions, which have very descriptive names, Color of Title can lead to confusion. 

This condition references a situation when the legal owner of the property has some shoddy or incomplete paperwork. This situation doesn’t automatically disqualify the landlord as a legal owner, yet it makes him/her open to a legal challenge. 

In some areas, color of title is a mandatory prerequisite for an adverse possession claim. That is not the case when arguing squatter rights PA. As long as the previous five criteria are met, a squatter can file an adverse possession claim. 

How to remove a squatter 

Squatter rights PA can vary depending on which property is being occupied. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. In some instances, a judicial eviction will be required. 

However, in most cases, a procedural pattern emerges when dealing with squatter evictions. 

Squatter rights in PA do not prevent the landlord from filing an affidavit specifying their claim as the legal and legitimate owner of said property. Also, the action will determine that the squatter does not have any legal claim to remain on the property.

Following this step, a civil hearing can be held via the Common Pleas Court. 

If the resulting decision favors the owner, the squatter will no longer have any right to remain. Also, a fine can go along with the removal. 

Although optional, a 90-day jail sentence can be passed by the judge.

The process of evicting someone is just as complex as squatter rights PA. For more information, you can check out our article on evictions here. 

There are several variations of the eviction process. Still, most likely, the squatter will need to be served with an eviction notice first, especially if the property is not within Philadelphia city boundaries. 

Be it renters or squatters; they should receive a 10-day Notice to Vacate. This notice will offer the opportunity to pay for the right to remain on the premises. Of course, this accumulated amount of money will be outside the possibilities of most squatters; thus, they will be forced to leave.

After the allotted period, the owner is free to file for an eviction order. Once the filing process is complete, a court authority will establish a hearing date. 

A majority of squatters will not be eligible for Adverse Possession. It is very hard to occupy a property openly, without interruption, for 21 years. In addition, you also have to work on said property, treating it as if it was your own. 

Owners will try to evict squatters as soon as they catch them, so reaching an occupation period of 21 years is extremely unlikely (yet not unheard of). 

How to avoid attracting squatters to your property

How can one lose track of a property for 21 years? For many owners, that may seem like an impossibility. Yet, it is possible. 

For example, those who own multiple properties may have some assets just sitting around awaiting development. The “it’s not going anywhere” mentality can cost the owner his/her property.

If an owner wants to avoid dealing with squatter rights PA, it is better to take precautions. The first measure is as intuitive as it is simple: visit the location as often as possible. 

As was previously mentioned, the squatters are not allowed to hide their presence from you. They must live out in the open, maintain the property, and even make aesthetic modifications. Any other behavior will put the law entirely on the side of the owner. 

Next, you should verify that all locks and windows are secured. Many squatters do not gain access by breaking in, as they simply take residence on unsecured properties. Also, be sure to post “No trespassing!” signs, specifying that an uninvited presence is unwelcomed. 

If caught, the squatters should be offered rent payments to continue their stay. It is rare for them to accept, although it can happen. If this offer is refused, the owner can call the police to have them removed. 

Regardless of what you choose to do as an owner, be sure to consult with a lawyer. 

Conclusion

For a vast majority of landlords, having to deal with squatter rights PA is an unwelcomed situation. Any type of eviction requires court dates, eviction notices, and access to a legal consultant. 

On the flip side, many squatters either do not know that they have rights or assume they have more rights than they actually do. 

Regardless of the category you find yourself in, this post contains the most relevant information regarding squatter rights PA. Both squatters and owners can benefit from knowing the law and acting accordingly. 

We hope that you have enjoyed our article "Squatter rights PA: 5 requirements for adverse possession claims".

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