Imagine waking up one day to find unauthorized occupants residing on your property, claiming it as their own. This nightmare scenario is a real concern for property owners.
This article will discuss squatter’s rights in Pennsylvania and the strategies you use to legally safeguard your property from squatters.
How Does Pennsylvania Define a “Squatter?”
A squatter is a person who settles or locates on land with no bona fide claim or color of title and without the owner’s consent.
Can a Squatter Obtain Title to Land In Pennsylvania?
The short answer is “Yes.”
A squatter can obtain legal title to land in Pennsylvania through a legal process called “Adverse Possession.”
Let me tell you of a case that will show you how absentee ownership can lead a squatter to make a claim for adverse possession.
“Mr. Anderson,” a businessman from California, acquired a small riverfront lot near Harrisburg with future retirement plans in mind.
However, Mr. Anderson rarely visited or monitored the property due to professional obligations and living out of state. This limited oversight created an environment ripe for adverse possession.
In the backdrop of Mr. Anderson’s infrequent visits, a squatter, whom we’ll refer to as “Mr. Squatter,” recognized the unattended lot as an opportunity for improvement.
Mr. Squatter enhanced the land, transforming it from an ignored plot to a well-maintained tract. This transformation was marked by putting up fencing, clearing debris, paying taxes, and constructing a small cabin.
Ten years later, Mr. Squatter claimed legal ownership of the property using the doctrine of adverse possession.
With legal representation, Mr. Squatter initiated a lawsuit to quiet title to the land, asserting his rights based on his continuous, open, and substantial improvements to the property.
As the case progressed, evidence was produced explaining Mr. Anderson’s original intent to retire on the riverfront property and the extenuating factors that limited his involvement, especially considering he lived in California.
However, as the evidence unfolded, it became evident that Mr. Squatter’s actions aligned with the legal criteria for adverse possession, compelling the court to rule in his favor.
This case serves as a sobering reminder that property ownership is not solely determined by acquisition; it requires ongoing engagement and stewardship to retain ownership rights.
The story of Mr. Anderson and Mr. Squatter highlights the importance of proactive property management. No matter the rationale, neglecting an investment can expose property owners to unintended legal consequences.
How Does a Squatter Obtain Title By Adverse Possession in Pennsylvania?
A squatter can obtain title to land in Pennsylvania by meeting all the requirements for adverse possession.
A party who seeks to establish title to real property by adverse possession in Pennsylvania must prove (1) actual, (2) exclusive, (3) visible, (4) notorious, (5) distinct, (6) hostile, and (7) continuous for a period of either ten or twenty-one years. (10 years for single-family homes on less than ½ acre and 21 years in all other instances)(See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5527.1, and 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5530).
Not proving even one of these elements will defeat an adverse possession claim.
Here is what the courts in Pennsylvania have said about each one of the elements necessary to establish adverse possession:
In Pennsylvania, “actual possession” in the context of adverse possession refers to a person physically occupying and using a property as if they were the true owner of the land.
The courts have said that “actual possession of land means dominion over the property.” (See Moore v. Duran, 455 Pa.Super. 124, 687 A.2d 822 (1996)).
In general, actual possession will require a person to treat the property as their own, make improvements, and use it as a typical owner would.
2. Distinct and Exclusive
The “Distinct and exclusive” possession requirement means that the adverse possessor must have sole control and use of the property, “excluding others,” including the true owner. (See Glenn v. Shuey, 595 A.2d 606 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1991).
In other words, the adverse possessor should demonstrate that they are the primary and dominant user of the property during the period required for adverse possession to be established.
Pennsylvania courts also said that to show exclusive possession, the claimant’s possession does not need to be absolutely exclusive. Instead, the possession only needs to be the same type of possession that would characterize an owner’s use. (See Reed v. Wolyniec, 323 Pa.Super. 550, 471 A.2d 80 (1983)).
3. Visible and Notorious
“Visible and notorious“possession of land means that the claim of ownership must be evidenced by conduct sufficient to place a reasonable person on notice that the claimant is holding their land as his own. Sterner v. Freed, 391 Pa.Super. 254, 570 A.2d 1079 (1990).
“Visible” means that the possession should be readily observable and evident to anyone with an ownership interest in the land. It should not be conducted in secret or behind closed doors.
The open element requires that the possessor’s actions are visible and conducted in a way that doesn’t try to obscure or conceal the assertion of ownership over the property.
“Notorious” refers to the requirement that the adverse possessor’s occupation and use of the property are conducted in a manner that is well-known, widely recognized, or commonly understood within the local community or among those with an ownership interest in the property.
“Hostile” doesn’t mean “ill will” or “hostility,” but it implies an assertion of ownership rights adverse to that of the true owner and all others. Schlagel v. Lombardi, 337 Pa.Super. 83 (1984).
A possession is considered “hostile” when the adverse possessor occupies the property without the true owner’s permission or legal right to do so.
Hostile possession occurs when the adverse possessor occupies the property to assert ownership rights that are adverse to the true owner’s rights.
5. Continuous For a Period of Either Twenty-One or Ten Years
The possession of the land must be continuous and uninterrupted for ten or twenty-one years.
A person can obtain adverse possession of a single-family home located on less than one-half acre of land when there is continuous and uninterrupted possession of the land for ten years.
It takes twenty-one years of continuous and uninterrupted use and occupation for all other lands to obtain title by adverse possession.
Constant use by the person claiming adverse possession is not required as long as the possession is of the type the usual owner would make of the property. (See Pistner Bros., Inc. v. Agheli, 359 Pa.Super. 177, 518 A.2d 838 (1986)).
Temporary absence from the land without an intention to abandon possession will not break the continuity of possession.
There also does not need to be ten or twenty-one years of continuous possession by the same person. Ordinarily, an adverse possessor can take advantage of the periods of adverse possession by his predecessor.
Separate periods of adverse possession may be “tacked” together to make up the entire ten or twenty-one-year period with the result that the final adverse possessor gets title to the land.
Strategies to Safeguard Your Pennsylvania Property Against Adverse Possession
Avoiding adverse possession of your property involves taking proactive measures to protect your ownership rights and prevent others from acquiring legal ownership through continuous and open use.
Here are some strategies to consider:
- Regular Property Inspections: Regularly inspect your property to ensure no one uses it without your permission. This will help you identify any potential adverse possession claims early on.
- Clear Boundaries: Mark the boundaries of your property with fences, walls, or other visible markers. This can help prevent encroachments and clarify where your property lines lie.
- Communication: If you become aware of someone using your property, communicate with them in writing to assert your ownership rights and ask them to stop. This establishes a record of your efforts to prevent adverse possession.
- Property Tax Payments: Continuously pay property taxes on time. Failure to pay property taxes can weaken your claim to the property and make it easier for someone else to claim adverse possession.
- No Permission: Do not grant permission for others to use your property in a way that might be construed as allowing them to gain ownership. Any permissive use can weaken your defense against an adverse possession claim.
- Document Everything: Keep records of property surveys, deeds, property tax payments, and any communication with individuals using your property without permission. These records can be crucial evidence if a dispute arises.
- Lease Agreements: If you allow someone to use your property temporarily, create a written lease agreement that explicitly states their lack of ownership rights and specifies the duration of use.
- Regular Use: Continue using your property regularly. Regular, consistent use helps demonstrate your active ownership and can undermine any adverse possession claims.
- Legal Action: If you become aware of a potential adverse possession claim, consult a real estate attorney to discuss your options. Taking legal action early on can help protect your ownership rights.
- Post Warning Signs: If applicable, post signs indicating your property ownership. While not foolproof, this can discourage individuals from attempting adverse possession.
- Negotiation: If you discover someone is using your property without permission, consider negotiating an agreement that reaffirms your ownership while allowing them to use the property under certain conditions.
- Land Use Agreements: If you know someone using your property, you can create a land use agreement outlining their use while reaffirming your ownership. This agreement can help prevent adverse possession claims.
How Can a Landowner Get Rid of Squatters In Pennsylvania?
Here are some steps you can take if you have squatters on your land in Pennsylvania:
- Start With a Conversation: First, determine if the individuals on your property are indeed squatters or if they claim to have some form of legal right to be there, such as a lease agreement. You’ll need to address the situation differently if they have any legitimate claim to the property.
- Contact Law Enforcement: If the individuals are squatters and you want them to leave, you can start by contacting local law enforcement. However, law enforcement might consider it a civil matter and might not get directly involved in removing squatters.
- Don’t Use Self-Help: In Pennsylvania, carrying out forcible evictions is against the law. Pennsylvania’s Landlord and Tenant eliminates the self-help remedy in favor of judicial process to remove a tenant wrongfully in possession.” (See 68 Pa. Stat. § 250.101). This means property owners must adhere to the state’s judicial eviction process to displace squatters and reclaim rightful possession of their property lawfully.
- Serve Notice: To start the legal process, you’ll likely need to serve the squatters with an eviction notice. The type of notice required can depend on the situation. Consult with a lawyer in your area to determine the appropriate notice to use.
- File for Eviction: If the squatters do not leave voluntarily after being served an eviction notice, you’ll likely need to file for eviction in court. This involves filling out the necessary paperwork and following the legal process for eviction as outlined in Pennsylvania law.
- Obtain a Court Order: If the court determines that the squatters should be evicted, they will issue a court order requiring the squatters to leave the property within a specified period. If the squatters still do not leave, you may need to involve law enforcement to enforce the court order.
- Enforce the Court Order: If the squatters do not leave after the court order is issued, you will need to work with law enforcement to physically remove them from the property. It’s essential to follow all legal procedures to avoid any potential legal liabilities.
I strongly recommend seeking legal advice from an experienced real estate attorney in Pennsylvania if you have concerns about squatters and adverse possession. An attorney’s expertise will clarify local laws, the feasibility of your claim, and the potential risks involved.