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Landlords with vacant property should take note of the shortage of available housing and the rising number of homeless people in California as it correlates to an increase in squatters.

A squatter is someone who unlawfully occupies uninhabited property. Historically, California law tends to leniently treat people living in homes they do not legally own or rent. Law enforcement who consider squatters a civil matter rather than criminal problem adds to the issue.

An all over problem

Squatting is not limited to low income neighborhoods. Both single family homes in subdivisions and upscale coastal residences are subject to squatters. Serial “professional” squatters use squatting as a way of life. These squatters scope out better homes and use fake leases and legal loopholes to stay in the property for months, even after the discovery of their illicit living arrangement. The recession brought about resource guides with step-by-step instructions for how to pirate utilities, open locks and create a fake lease.

Adverse possession

It may surprise landlords that they can lose the rights to property over taken by squatters, but it is in fact possible through a process known as adverse possession. The process dates back to feudal England where people took possession of unused property and began living on and working the land. The basis for the practice stems from a belief that land should not sit idly. Through the process of adverse possession, squatters can obtain a legitimate legal title for the property they occupy.

Elements of adverse possession

In adverse possession, the trespasser must publicly occupy the property for five years. If the trespasser leaves and returns the clock restarts. During the occupation the trespasser must pay property taxes. The trespasser must all perform maintenance and upkeep as if they owned the property. The claim to the property could be through an honest mistake, such as an incorrect title, or the trespasser may be aware of their trespassing. After occupying the property for the set time frame, the trespasser may apply for a legal title.

Landlord responsibility

The burden of vigilance against squatting falls to the landlord or owner. Landlords, especially absentee landlords, who allow property to sit vacant for a long period of time put the property at risk for squatting. In the case a squatter is discovered and they are unwilling to leave, the landlord may need to go to court to evict them.

Aside from the risk of adverse possession, squatters can cause extensive damage in a short amount of time. Regular checks on vacant property can help prevent uninvited occupation by squatters. Catching squatters before the time limit for occupation ends greatly increases your chance of retaining ownership.