Understanding Squatters’ Rights: A California Homeowner’s Guide

When you bought your house years ago, you never imagined that, someday, it would turn into a fairly lucrative rental property. After exploring your options when it came time to buy your next home, however, you decided to take the plunge into life as a landlord. So, you kept your first house as a rental with the goal of charging more than your mortgage and operating costs—such as property taxes and insurance—so that you could also earn a little extra. For a while, it worked. All of your tenants had a beautiful home they loved and cared for. You had passive income that was easier than expected to earn.

That is, until it wasn’t. Just as you never imagined you’d be a successful landlord, you also didn’t count on ever having problem tenants. Now that they haven’t paid their rent in months, you find yourself paying for a second mortgage—a near impossible task that is quickly draining your funds. You want them out, but you also know that squatters have rights in California. So, how do you deal with the situation legally—without losing any more money (or your sanity)? That’s what we’re here to figure out.

What Are Squatters’ Rights in California?

In California, squatters’ rights are often conflated with tenants’ rights; and, to some extent, the two do overlap. Typically, squatters move into vacant homes without the homeowner’s permission and, under certain conditions and with a long enough timeline, can actually be granted legal possession of a property. Tenants, on the other hand, have a verbal or written rental contract in place that gives them the right to live in the home for an agreed-upon price. Sometimes, squatters claim to be tenants and may even produce forged documents as proof. Tenants may, technically, break their contracts by not paying rent and still “squat” in the home without the owner’s consent.

How do you deal with the situation legally—without losing any more money (or your sanity)?

In either case, if you choose not to act immediately—or can’t—it becomes harder to rid the house of your unwanted guests. It doesn’t matter if you need to sell the house during your separation to pay for court costs or if you simply want to move your inlaws in so that you can have them nearby. You cannot make a sudden move against the home’s occupants without, potentially, violating state and local laws.

These laws, which can vary by jurisdiction and even be applied differently from one situation to the next, give the occupants of a property the right stay until—and if—you can prove they have no right to the house at all. It may sound unfair, but the laws were designed to protect legal tenants from being unfairly evicted. With homelessness in the state again on the rise, partly due to rising rents and questionable evictions, squatters’ rights may actually expand. Unfortunately, that means your risk of inadvertently housing a squatter at some point could grow, too.

What You Should Not Do

If there are people squatting in your house—whether they’re former tenants or not—there are steps you can take to get them out. There are also steps you can take that might get you into trouble. So, before you do anything, do not do the following:

  • Change existing locks or add padlocks to the doors, windows, and garage
  • Install a barricade, such as a fence, around the property
  • Shut off utilities
  • Remove the occupants’ furniture or other personal belongings
  • Confront, intimidate, or threaten the occupants with any of the above actions
  • Attempt to forcibly remove the occupants yourself

Any of these actions will reflect unfavorably on you in a California court of law. Since you may have to take the occupants to court to prove that they’re on your property illegally, the burden is on you to ensure you’re seen in the best light. Neglect this responsibility and a judge could award you with fines and a lengthy legal battle that gives the squatters more time in the home, instead of the eviction you seek.

Maintaining a cool, professional, even compassionate demeanor will keep the law on your side.

What You Can Do

So, as difficult as it might be, work hard to remain calm while working methodically, and legally, to remove the occupants. Maintaining a cool, professional, even compassionate demeanor will keep the law on your side. But it’s potentially advantageous in another critical way as well: the less combative you are with your squatters, the less damage they might inflict on your house.

Here’s what you can do to start the process of taking back your home:

  • Start a paper trail by sending a written notice to the occupants that they are residing in the home without your consent. The more proof you have that you’ve attempted to rectify the situation, the more credible your claim will be.
  • Contact local authorities to inquire about any specific guidelines you should follow before proceeding with an eviction and, if allowed, file an official complaint. The police may opt to treat your situation as a trespassing case and remove the person or persons for you. Take note, however, that the sooner you call, the better. The longer the squatters stay, the more likely they’ll be seen as tenants, whether they’ve ever been in contract with you or not. And, that makes your case into a civil one and not a police matter—yet.
  • If the occupants were once your tenants who are now refusing (or unable) to pay, serve them with a three-day notice to pay rent or quit. Include the amount owed and either deliver it by hand or post it visibly on the property. Carry out this step for squatters, too, if they’ve been in the home for 30 days or more. (The court may see them as tenants.)
  • If the occupants refuse to pay, provide at least five days’ notice of your intent to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit—then, file the lawsuit with your county courthouse.
  • Upon winning the lawsuit, if the occupants still refuse to leave, hire the local sheriff to force them out.
  • After the occupants leave, safely store any personal property left behind or you could find yourself liable for just compensation. The length of time you have to store their things may depend on the laws in your area or on the ruling handed down by the judge. So, be sure to ask how long is long enough before you decide to toss anything out.
  • Your final step is to change the locks and any security codes, padlock the doors and garage if necessary, even put up that chain link fence you wanted to install before. If windows are broken, repair them as quickly as you can. You may also want to increase security around the property with cameras or an alarm to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

If all of this sounds like a lot of expense and hassle, it is. Unfortunately, dealing with tenants who don’t pay their rent and squatters who take adverse possession of a property is a reality many homeowners face. That non-paying tenants and squatters have rights in California can just add insult to injury—especially when they also cause damage to your home and your livelihood. With the recent rent cap signed into state law, evictions are expected to get even harder.

The good news is that evicting the occupants who are unfairly inhabiting your home isn’t your only option. In fact, one of the easiest steps you can take is to get out from under this problem altogether. And, you can do that by selling your house directly to a reputable all-cash buyer.

Since many cash buyers will take a home as-is, often you can sell your house even though it may need major repairs.

The good news is that evicting the occupants who are unfairly inhabiting your home isn’t your only option.

Of course, not every buyer can handle non-paying tenants or squatters even if they wanted to. There is one, however, that’s not only a buyer but also a local real estate advisor with experience in these matters. They’ll certainly make you an offer, but they’ll give you sound advice, too.

Evict Your Worries by Unloading Your Home

Here at Sell Your House Direct, we don’t see any situation as hopeless—not even where longtime squatters are involved. As home buying specialists, we’ve been helping our clients unload problem properties for almost two decades. We’re able to advise them on their best course of action, which may be to sell the house as-is directly to us. When it’s not, we don’t leave them hanging. Instead, we point them in the right direction and even towards another buyer.

So, if you’re frustrated that your non-paying tenants or squatters have rights in California that are preventing you from getting an eviction or quickly selling your home, give us a call. We can help you understand all of your options in addition to giving you a fast, all-cash, as-is offer. Before you know it, you’ll be free of your squatters—and all of the worry their presence has caused.

Get an offer today from a home buying specialist who can take your property—and its squatters—off your hands and put cash and peace of mind in its place.