The main difference between squatting and trespassing in NJ is that trespassing is a criminal offense while squatting is legal as long as the property owner has not made it apparent that they are no longer welcome. Therefore, a squatter can become a trespasser, but the terms are different. Generally, squatting is treated as a civil matter, whereas trespassing is regarded as a criminal offense.
For instance, a squatter comes across an abandoned building and begins living on the property without permission. Doing so is only illegal if the owner finds out and tells them to leave. In that case, it could be considered trespassing unless the squatter can claim adverse possession.
Adverse possession, also known as "squatter rights," is a legal principle that allows a squatter to obtain a right to a property if they spend a certain amount of time occupying it. In New Jersey, a squatter can claim adverse possession after occupying the property for 30 years continuously (60 years if it's woodland or uncultivated land). So, suppose a squatter happens across an abandoned property and makes it their home after 30 years of continuous habitation. In that case, they can legally obtain the same rights as any other property owner without buying it or ever dealing with the owner. But, if the owner finds out they are squatting within those 30 years, they can take steps to evict them.
Disabled Property Owner Provision
It's also good to note that there is a provision in squatters' rights law in New Jersey that gives disabled property owners more time to reclaim their property before the squatter can claim adverse possession. The scope of the disabled also includes those who are imprisoned, legally incompetent, or minors. So if the owner has been disabled or in prison for the majority of the time that the squatter is occupying their property, they will have an extra five years to try to reclaim the title.
You cannot perform a self-help eviction in NJ. To evict squatters, you must follow specific procedures to ensure you do not break any laws. When evicting squatters in NJ, you must be careful with how you handle the situation, just like dealing with tenants who pay rent. You can't force them off your property, change the locks, or threaten them to leave, or you could also face legal consequences. Instead, you must go through a formal process to have them evicted. Here are the steps you should take.
- Call the Authorities
- Serve a Notice to Vacate
- Begin Eviction Proceedings
1. Call the Authorities
First, you should alert the local police or sheriff's office to let them know you have squatters on your property and you would like them to leave. The police may be able to mediate a solution and find them another place to stay. Or if you have to forcibly evict them, it establishes a clear record that you tried to de-escalate the situation if it needs to go to court.
2. Serve a Notice to Vacate
If the squatter still refuses to leave, you will then serve them with a notice to vacate, the same way you would with a tenant who stops paying rent. In New Jersey, you can evict a squatter by serving them a 3-day notice to quit if they are engaging in illegal activity, causing a disturbance, or damaging the property. This gives them three days to vacate before the sheriff can be brought in to evict them.
3. Begin Eviction Proceedings
If there is no evidence of a disturbance or illegal activity, you'll have to go through the formal eviction process. There will then be a court hearing before a judge determining whether the squatter can be forcibly removed. It may be tedious, but you must go through the proper channels to have the squatter legally evicted. Self-help evictions are illegal in New Jersey, and you can get in serious trouble if you try to forcibly remove the squatter on your own.
Squatting in New Jersey is more common than you would think, and you must be careful with how you deal with anyone who stays on your property, even if you didn't invite them. They have rights just like any other visitor or tenant, and so you must go through the proper channels if you want them to leave. The best way to deal with the situation is to level with them and encourage them to leave voluntarily. But if that doesn't work, using the court system is the next logical step.