Dealing with a squatter has to rank high on the list of a property owner’s nightmare scenarios. What rights does a property owner have in that situation? What rights does the squatter have? What are the steps for evicting a squatter? Understanding the legal process for dealing with squatters can speed up a resolution of the problem should you ever find yourself in that predicament.
Felix is a property owner in Lorton, VA that did find himself in that situation. He owned a rental property that had been uninhabited for a few months. The previous tenant had damaged the floors in the kitchen and dining areas to the extent that those floors had to be completely torn out and replaced. After fixing the subflooring, Felix had fallen ill and, the repair had not been completed. During his illness, Felix had decided he no longer wanted t to manage the rental property and had begun looking at options for selling the property outright. That is what led him to us here at Akin Developers.
Felix came to Akin Developers after seeing our webpage. The fact that we buy homes in almost any condition appealed to him since that meant he would not have to complete the repairs on his property before selling. After our initial meeting, we arranged to meet Felix at the property for an inspection so we could make a fair offer to purchase the property. This is where that experience became even more interesting.
When we arrived at the property, Felix was surprised to see lights on in one of the rooms. He assumed the light had been left on by one of the repairmen when completion of the job had been postponed. He mentioned that the latest electric bill had been slightly higher and now that made sense. When we entered the home, though, it became obvious there was a bigger problem than a careless repairman – a squatter had taken up residence in Felix’s rental property! Fortunately, we were able to connect Felix with an attorney in our network who had dealt with this situation before, and we assured Felix we were still interested in purchasing the property.
The Difference Between a Trespasser and a Squatter
Virginia Law is very specific about the difference between a trespasser and a squatter. There are also very different steps that must be followed in dealing with either of those situations.
According to Lawrina.com, Virginia law defines a squatter as “anyone who occupies an unoccupied home or property without permission. In some cases, the person in question may honestly believe they have a right to be there. There are many instances where fake rental ads have been placed in newspapers by someone who isn’t the legal property owner. The squatter may have been paying “rent” to the scammer in good faith. This legal owner has no obligation to honor a fake rental agreement, but there are specific steps that must be followed to correct the situation.
Virginia Law (§ 18.2-119) defines a trespasser as anyone who “goes upon the lands, building or premises of another, or any portion thereof, after having been forbidden to do so, either orally or in writing.” The “in writing” portion also includes property that is specifically posted as “No Trespassing”.
In Felix’s case, the property was not posted and, the person staying in the house had entered through aback door that had been left open when the repairmen left. He had also set up a folding table and chair and a camp cot, basically “set up housekeeping”. These conditions qualified the person in the house as a squatter, rather than a trespasser, according to Virginia State Law.
Legal Steps to Remove a Squatter vs. a Trespasser
Virginia Law, as well as laws in numerous other states, allows for a squatter to obtain legal title to a property if certain conditions exist. In Virginia, it is called “Adverse Possession” and a squatter must occupy a property uninterrupted for 15 years to qualify, so this was not an issue for Felix.
However, the legal property owner in Virginia cannot threaten the squatter or try to force them off the property by shutting off utilities, changing locks, etc. Trespassing is a criminal matter in Virginia but, squatting is handled as a civil matter. That means that removing a trespasser from your property is a much simpler process than removing a squatter. A landowner can simply call local police officers to remove a trespasser, but must solve the matter of removing a squatter from their property in civil court using the legal eviction process.
That process involves serving notice of eviction, a court hearing and, removal by local authorities, if the squatter does not leave the property after the court orders them to do so. The most common eviction notice used for squatters is a “5-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit.” With served with this Notice the squatter has five days to pay the specified amount of rent due or to leave the property. If they do not pay the rent or leave the property within five days, a date is scheduled for a court hearing where both the landowner and the squatter will have a chance to plead their case.
If the court finds in the landowner’s favor but, the squatter still refuses to leave the property, it is important to remember that the landowner must not try to force the squatter to leave. Any act of force by the landowner could potentially provide grounds for the squatter to sue the landowner. In Virginia, only a Sheriff or Constable is authorized to enforce an eviction notice.
Resolution of Felix’s Situation
In Felix’s case, he followed the advice of his attorney and had the squatter served with a “5-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit”, which specified the amount of rent due. The squatter quietly left the property and Felix did not have to pursue further action through the court. We at Akin Developers offered him a fair “as is” offer for the property, which he accepted.
Felix’s advice to other property owners? Make sure your property is posted “No Trespassing” and all access to the house is secured. If you can’t keep a frequent watch on the property yourself, ask a neighbor or friend to do so. Preventing a squatter from moving into your property is a lot easier and less time-consuming than having one removed! But if you find yourself in this situation, get help from professionals like those at Akin Developers.