Squatters Rights in California

In California, a person who occupies a vacant property or land without legal permission is commonly referred to as a “squatter”. Through the legal process of adverse possession, squatters in California may be able to acquire legal rights to the property. This process, also known as “squatter’s rights,” grants the occupant ownership of the property without the need to purchase it through traditional means. However, it is important to note that the act of squatting and claiming adverse possession is considered unlawful and can result in legal consequences.

Squatting vs. Trespassing in California

Although squatting and trespassing both involve occupying a vacant property illegally, they differ in terms of duration and intent. Trespassers usually only occupy a space temporarily and have no intention of making it their primary residence or claiming it as their own. In contrast, squatters take over a vacant property with the intention of making it their home. They typically remain there for a specific period of time, uninterrupted and without being properly evicted, and then file for adverse possession to gain legal ownership of the property. It’s important to note that squatting and claiming adverse possession is considered illegal and may result in legal consequences.

How Do Squatters Claim Adverse Possession in California?

Although squatter’s rights are recognized nationwide, each state has its own specific rules regarding adverse possession. In California, there are six criteria that a squatter must meet to be eligible to claim legal ownership of a vacant property:

1. Hostile Possession

To claim adverse possession, squatters must demonstrate “hostile possession” of the property, meaning they are occupying the space without the true owner’s permission and intend to possess it as if they were the owner. This makes their occupancy hostile to the interests of the actual owner.

However, if a squatter pays rent to the original property owner, this constitutes a landlord-tenant relationship and is not considered hostile possession. As a result, squatters who pay rent cannot claim adverse possession.

2. Actual Possession

For squatters to claim adverse possession, they must demonstrate “actual possession” of the property by exercising control over it. This includes actively living in the vacant property and treating it as their own. Squatters can establish actual possession through various means, such as performing functional maintenance, paying utilities, and making renovations or improvements to the property. Additionally, building a protective enclosure, such as a fence or hedge, around the property is considered evidence of actual possession in California.

3. Continuous Possession 

To claim adverse possession, squatters must occupy the property continuously for an extended period of time. If they vacate the property for a consecutive series of weeks, months, or years, their claim to continuous possession will be forfeited. In California, squatters must reside in a vacant property for a minimum of five years before they can file for possession.

4. Exclusive Possession

In order to claim adverse possession, a squatter must reside in the property alone and cannot share possession with other squatters. If multiple squatters occupy the same property, they cannot apply for adverse possession simultaneously as exclusive possession is required to establish a claim.

5. Open & Notorious

To claim adverse possession, a squatter cannot conceal their occupation of the property. On the contrary, they must be as visible as possible and make the general public aware of their presence. This helps to protect the squatter in case the original owner claims that their residence was hidden.

6. They Pay Property Taxes

Unlike some other states, California requires squatters to pay property taxes in order to claim adverse possession. Specifically, squatters must pay all taxes, fees, and bills related to property maintenance for five consecutive years, including state, county, and municipal taxes. In addition, squatters must provide certified proof of these payments through records from the local tax collector. Failure to provide this evidence can result in legal eviction from the property.

Unlike some other states, California does not recognize “Color of Title” as a means of honoring adverse possession. To legally file for possession in California, squatters must meet the specific criteria mentioned earlier. Adverse possession in California can allow squatters to revive derelict buildings, giving them a new purpose and use.

How To Evict A Squatter in California

In California, the property owner holds a legal advantage, and there are various options available for evicting squatters. One of the easiest ways is through a “cash-for-keys” arrangement, where the owner pays the squatter to leave. Alternatively, the property owner can offer to rent the property to the squatter or give them written permission to be there. However, using these options may make it more difficult to remove the squatter later on. In cases where these methods do not work, the most effective way to remove a squatter is by issuing an eviction notice. If the squatter refuses to vacate the property, the owner can file an “unlawful detainer” lawsuit to regain rightful possession.

California Squatters Rights Bottom Line

Squatters often take advantage of vacant properties, occupying them unlawfully until they can claim legal ownership through adverse possession. Neglected properties that are not frequently checked may be more vulnerable to this kind of occupation. Once a squatter has successfully claimed adverse possession, they are no longer considered illegal trespassers but rather legitimate titleholders of the property.