Protect property from squatters by being vigilant

When there are easily accessed online articles and even a few websites dedicated to helping squatters be successful, it is easy to understand why the practice is so widespread. Property owners In California need to take extra care in safeguarding their property due to somewhat easier restrictions on squatters and their rights of tenancy to property they do not own.

The Los Angeles Times carries a story about squatting, which has been a bigger-than-usual problem over the past decade or so due to the housing bust. It is not just a situation faced in modest neighborhoods of single-family homes lost through the foreclosure crisis, but upscale coastal homes too.

In one situation, an absentee property owner who inherited a condo left it empty for 13 years until a visit to the unit showed that others had moved in, changed the locks and taken up full residence there. They paid the HOA fees and attended board meetings, where they also voted. They had also applied for and received, a title change on the property. It was theirs.

The inheritor questioned why the HOA or neighbors failed to inform him about what was happening. However, the association is under no legal obligation to inform owners of activities at their homes. Neither are neighbors. The HOA representative assumed the unit had been sold, and that is likely what the neighbors thought too.

FindLaw explains that squatting, or adverse possession, is a situation in which someone publicly and intentionally moves into and begins improving neglected or abandoned property. If the occupation is done in secret, it is not a valid possession. State law requires adverse possession of the property for at least five years, during which time the squatter, or trespasser, must also pay taxes on the property, before becoming eligible to apply for legal title.

The trespasser must also remain on the property the entire five years or more. If he or she moves away, then returns later, the time period restarts. The squatter must know they are trespassing, and they may not share possessions with others. This prevents a group of people from moving in and establishing squatter’s rights.

For absentee property owners concerned about losing their property through adverse possession, it is a good idea to check on your property regularly. Engage the help of your neighbors and HOA, if applicable, by letting them know your plans for the property and asking them to keep an eye out for activity there. If you catch squatters before the five-year period is reached, you have a better chance of evicting them and retaining ownership.

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