In Washington, squatter’s rights or adverse possession is a legal concept that applies to property. It refers to the method by which a person can become the owner of a property that does not belong to them without consent from the property’s rightful owner.
Understanding the laws and regulations about squatter’s rights can help you stay aware and take action to prevent adverse possession from happening to your property.
What is a squatter?
“Squatter” is not a legal term, but the law understands a squatter as someone occupying someone else’s property without permission. A squatter must enter the property through an unlocked entrance. If the individual uses force to enter, they have become a trespasser, which usually qualifies as a criminal activity, while squatting is considered a civil matter.
If a tenant stays in a property after their lease expires, they become a holdover tenant rather than a squatter or trespasser. The landlord can accept rent month-to-month or begin an eviction process if the tenant does not leave.
How adverse possession works
If a squatter tries to claim adverse possession of your property, they must provide proof to support their claim in a property ownership dispute. No single statute lists adverse possession elements, but the courts have defined a list of criteria.
A squatter must meet the following conditions to take ownership:
- Take hostile possession without permission and against the true owner’s right, although the squatter could mistakenly believe they own the property through an invalid deed.
- Exercise actual control over the property.
- Have exclusive possession, meaning the squatter cannot share the property with anyone else, or the adverse possession claim becomes invalidated.
- Engage in open, notorious occupancy, using the property as they would if they owned it, including landscaping and other improvements, without hiding their existence.
- Occuppy the property for a continuous, uninterrupted period of 7 years, with proof that the person has paid property taxes yearly; otherwise, their claim becomes invalidated.
- The squatter must also have “Color of Title,” which means the true owner lacks at least one required document to prove their property ownership.
Protecting your property from squatters
The laws regarding property disputes and a squatter’s rights can contain nuances, and every situation is different. Sometimes, you might need a knowledgeable attorney’s expertise to help remove squatters from your property.
To protect your property from squatters, ensure you do the following:
- Pay your property taxes each year
- Inspect your property regularly, especially if unoccupied
- Ensure the property is well-secured with locked windows and doors
- Use a reputable property management company if you live far away
- Call the police immediately if you notice squatters living on the property
Knowing the laws and acting quickly can keep your property safe from squatters.