Squatters Rights in California

By PropertyClub Team
Jul 5th 2023
A “Squatter” is someone who unlawfully takes up residence in a vacant property or piece of land. Through a process known as adverse possession, squatters in California can gain legal rights to vacant properties. These rights, collectively referred to as “squatter’s rights,” allow the illegal occupant to take legal ownership of the property without purchasing it. 

hash-markSquatting vs. Trespassing in California

Squatting and trespassing are similar as both involve illegally occupying a vacant property, but they differ in terms of time and intent. Trespassers are short-term occupants, meaning they only invade a vacant space for a short time. Additionally, they do not consider the property their primary residence and have no intention of eventually claiming it as their own.

Squatters, on the other hand, will take over a vacant space with the sole purpose of making it their home. After publicly moving into the property, a squatter will typically remain there for the legally-required amount of time. If not properly evicted during this extended, uninterrupted time frame, the squatter will file for adverse possession and gain full legal rights to the previously vacant property. 

hash-markHow Do Squatters Claim Adverse Possession in California?

While squatters’ rights are protected throughout the entire country, each state has rules regarding how and when a squatter can claim adverse possession. In California, a squatter must meet the following six pieces of criteria before obtaining legal rights to vacant property:

1. Hostile Possession

Hostile possession means that the squatter or illegal occupant is occupying the space without the true owner’s permission or consent. Yet, they intend to possess it as though they were the owner. This makes their occupying of the space hostile to the interests of the actual owner.

Additionally, squatters cannot claim hostile possession if they pay rent to the original property owner. This constitutes a landlord-tenant relationship and is not considered hostile occupancy. 

2. Actual Possession

Actual possession happens when a squatter exercises control over real property. They achieve this by both actively living in the vacant property and treating it as their own. Squatters can prove actual possession in a number of ways, including performing certain functional maintenance, paying utilities, and renovating/beautifying the property in some way. Building a protective enclosure around the property, such as a hedge or fence, is also considered proof of actual possession in the state of California.

3. Continuous Possession 

After taking possession of a property, a squatter must remain there for an extended, continuous period of time. If they leave the property for a consecutive series of weeks, months, or years, they will lose their claim to continuous possession. In California, squatters are required to spend a minimum of five years in a vacant property before filing for possession. 

4. Exclusive Possession

A squatter must live alone. They cannot share their possession with other squatters and will lose their ability to claim exclusive possession if they do. Additionally, multiple squatters cannot apply for adverse possession of the same property. 

5. Open & Notorious

A squatter cannot hide their occupation of a property; in fact, they should be as conspicuous as possible, making the general public aware of their presence. This will protect the squatter in the event that the original owner claims their residence was concealed.

6. They Pay Property Taxes

Some states don’t require a squatter to pay property taxes to claim adverse possession, but California does. In fact, California requires squatters to pay all taxes, fees, and bills associated with property maintenance for five consecutive years. This includes state, county, and municipal taxes. Additionally, squatters must provide certified proof of these payments through records from the local tax collector. Without this evidence, squatters can be legally evicted from the property.

While some states honor adverse possession through “Color of Title,” California does not. Only squatters meeting the abovementioned criteria can legally file for possession in California. In doing so, they can bring derelict buildings back to life, giving them use and purpose once again.

hash-markHow To Evict A Squatter in California

California favors the pre-existing property owner and provides several options for evicting squatters. The first and easiest is “cash-for-keys,” where an owner pays the squatter to leave. While this may seem unfair, it's typically the fastest and easiest way to get rid of a squatter in California. 

If this fails, property owners can also offer to rent their property to the squatter or give them written permission to be there. However, either of these options may make it more challenging to get the squatter to leave in the future. Of course, the most effective way to remove a squatter is through an eviction notice. If the squatter fails to leave after the notice is posted, an “unlawful detainer” lawsuit can be filed to return rightful possession to the original owner.

hash-markCalifornia Squatters Rights Bottom Line

Squatters are generally opportunists; if a vacant property is open and available, a squatter will move in sooner or later. And, if the property isn’t being regularly checked, they may eventually gain legal ownership. Squatters who claim adverse possession are no longer illegal trespassers but entirely legitimate titleholders of previously neglected property.