The United States has seen an increase in squatting in unoccupied houses, often foreclosed homes, in recent years. This can be a surprise to the owner. Last year, for example, the buyer of a foreclosed home in Portland was surprised to find that a squatter had broken into the house, changed the locks, and registered the electricity under his name. He claimed to be the owner based on occupancy.
At least one organization in Portland maintains a website claiming to give advice on how to take “free” real estate by possession. This site, however, gives incomplete legal information that is likely to get squatters into trouble. The law generally does not tolerate the simple taking of property by occupation, and landowners can usually get the squatter removed, either by arrest or through court order.
Getting Title by Adverse Possession
There is an old process to get title by occupation called “adverse possession.” The basic idea is that there is a statute of limitations on claims to recover land. If the occupier continuously occupied the property for the statutory period (ten years in Oregon and seven years in Washington), openly maintained a claim to land (or, in Washington, held a deed that was ineffective for some reason), and acted in a manner that disputed the right of the real owner, the occupier could eventually get title as a result of the owner failing to remove the occupier. That has always been a tall order. In one case from New York, the court ruled that using a vacant lot for a vegetable garden was not sufficient to indicate a claim of ownership and denied the garderner’s claim to the lot.
Adverse possession does have use in such situations as mismarked boundaries, errors in deeds, and the like. One case in Washington involved a series of lots, in which every buyer was mistakenly given the deed to the adjacent lot. When the problem was discovered, one of the owners refused to cooperate in fixing it, and the resulting suit went to the Washington Court of Appeals, which ruled that everyone was entitled to the land they actually possessed.
In Oregon, adverse possession is an extremely difficult claim to prove. In 1989, the legislature decided that the traditional rule was an invitation to bad faith taking of the title, and made the requirements much tighter. Oregon now requires that the occupant actually believe he or she owns the land, and that the belief have a reasonable basis from objective facts. In addition, the burden of proof has been raised to the level of high probability. Most squatters in Oregon, therefore, are unlikely to succeed at an adverse possession claim, as there are no grounds to claim ownership.
Washington also has some additional requirements. The occupier must pay proeprty taxes. If the occupier is claiming forest land, he or she must make $50,000 worth of improvements that remain for ten years. On the other hand, the occupier may be able to claim reimbursement for improvements and taxes paid, on the reasoning that it would be unfair for the owner to benefit. Most squatters probably will not pay the property taxes, so it is unlikely that they would succeed.
Getting Rid of the Squatter
In many cases, the police may remove a squatter for trespassing or other charges. If they decide, however, that the situation is a private dispute, the owner will have to sue to remove the squatter. Unfortunately, a suit to remove a squatter is likely to take time to resolve.
An owner who needs to file suit to remove a squatter should be ready to present proof of ownership, absence of any agreement allowing the squatter to enter, and evidence showing that the occupier failed to meet one of the requirements for adverse possession. That the occupier (and any prior occupier) has not been there for the required time is usually the easiest to prove; after that, nonpayment of taxes or other demonstration that the occupier doesn’t reasonably claim ownership could be used.
Unfortunately, if squatting continues to occur, more owners may find themselves having to deal with the squatters. If the police don’t help, legal assistance may be necessary to navigate the case through the courts.