Although the terms are often used interchangeably, a squatter differs from a trespasser. A squatter is only considered a trespasser if the owner discovers their presence and has made it clear that they are not welcome. If they are unaware that their presence is unwanted or they once had permission but have overstayed their welcome, they are considered squatters, not trespassers.
The main difference between squatting and trespassing is how they are treated in the courts. Trespassing is a criminal offense and can result in legal consequences for the perpetrator. On the other hand, squatting is typically a civil matter, and the owner must go through a formal eviction process if they wish to remove the guest.
Common examples of squatters include:
- A person who comes across an abandoned property and takes up residence
- A tenant who stops paying rent but refuses to vacate the premises
- The victim of fraud who is paying rent to a scammer instead of the actual property owner
After a certain amount of time has passed, squatters can obtain a legal right to the property through a process called adverse possession. In Pennsylvania, squatters can claim adverse possession after 21 years of continuous habitation. Adverse possession allows the squatter to enjoy the same rights as any other lawful homeowner. However, they must satisfy the following conditions as well.
- The occupant must be living in an open and visible manner and cannot be hidden or concealed from plain sight.
- The squatter must live alone and cannot share the property with anyone else.
- The squatter must demonstrate active control of the property, which means performing maintenance, landscaping, and other activities one would expect of a lawful homeowner.
- They must demonstrate good faith occupation, which means they were unaware their occupation was unlawful.
As long as the squatter can demonstrate that each of these conditions has been met, they have a right to claim adverse possession after 21 years.
If you discover a squatter on your Pennsylvania property, it's crucial that you follow the proper protocols and don't attempt to evict them yourself. Squatters have certain rights, the same as tenants who pay rent, and you can get in trouble if you threaten or forcibly evict them. Here are the steps you should take to evict a squatter in Pennsylvania.
1. Call the Police
First, call the local police department or sheriff's office. They may be able to help you find a solution or reason with the squatter on your behalf. Either way, it creates a clear record that you alerted the police rather than handling it alone.
2. Serve the Squatters Proper Notice
If the squatter still refuses to leave, you can serve them with a notice to vacate the premises or pay back rent. In most cases, you can serve them with a 10-day notice to quit, especially if you suspect illegal activity on the premises. But for a tenant who stops paying rent, you may be required to give them 15 or 30 days, depending on how long they've lived in the property. If they ignore your warnings, you can serve them with an eviction notice and start a court case.
3. File a Civil Claim
Next, you will file a claim in civil court and present your evidence before a judge. The squatter has a right to defend themselves. However, if they are clearly living on the property and not paying rent, the judge will likely rule in your favor. If they do not respond to the court summons, it will result in a default judgment, which means you automatically win. However, the exact procedures vary in different towns and counties, so you should research the local laws in your jurisdiction.
4. Let the Authorities Evict the Squatter
Once the judge rules in your favor, you can have the sheriff come and escort the squatter off the premises. You must let the authorities handle the eviction because the squatter may not want to leave peacefully, and it will only create more headaches if you get into a physical altercation.
Squatters can be a major nuisance for property owners. However, you must follow the proper legal procedures to avoid making the situation worse. They are granted rights under Pennsylvania law, so you must go through the proper channels if you want them removed from your property.