Squatters’ Rights in Florida: What Landlords Need to Know
When you buy an investment property, your goal is to make money and build equity. It can be disconcerting to learn of the many laws that can stop you from turning a profit - such as the legal process required to evict a tenant who isn’t paying rent. Squatters’ rights can also be problematic, especially if the individual manages to stay on your property long enough to obtain title to it.
A squatter is a person who unlawfully occupies your property. To remove them you will need to file an unlawful detainer action, which is distinct from an eviction proceeding because the squatter is not a tenant. If you fail to take action to remove the squatter, then they could potentially lay claim to your property.
At Eaton Realty, we understand the complexities surrounding owning an investment property in Florida. We offer comprehensive property management services to help you with your day-to-day needs as a landlord - as well as more thorny issues like squatters. If you’re interested in how we can manage your investment properties in Hillsborough County, give us a call.
What Is a Squatter?
A squatter is a person who occupies a piece of property or land without the permission of the owner. Squatting is similar to trespassing in some respects, but trespassing is a more temporary issue - such as someone coming onto your property to vandalize it. Trespassing is a criminal matter, while squatting is handled by the civil legal system.
The stereotype of a squatter is a person who comes onto your property while it is vacant and sets up a home there. For example, when a soldier based in Florida was deployed to Afghanistan, a stranger moved into his Pasco County home. He ultimately had to go through a lengthy legal process to remove the man from his property.
Squatters can also be people who are known to you, such a former romantic partner, a friend, or even a family member. If you allow a down-on-their luck friend to move into your place to get on their feet and they refuse to leave when you ask them to do so, they are considered a squatter.
Some squatters may end up on your property because of a scam. A person may advertise your property for rent without having any legal right to do so - and the person you view as a squatter may actually be a person who was duped into paying someone else money for rent and a security deposit. Even if they were victims of fraud, however, theyare still considered squatters.
If you have a squatter on your property, there isn’t always an easy fix. Generally, if they refuse to leave when you ask them to do so, then you will have to obtain a court order to get them out of your house. This process can be both expensive and time-consuming.
The Difference Between Tenants and Squatters
There is often confusion about whether a particular person is a tenant or a squatter. This distinction is important, because the process to remove a tenant - eviction - is different from what you need to do to remove a squatter.
As a general rule, if there was money or rent exchanged to live at the property or a writing that sets out how long the person can stay, then they will probably be considered a tenant. If they did not pay you and you don’t have any type of agreement, then they may be a squatter. A Florida real estate attorney can help you determine if the person in question is a squatter or a holdover tenant.
If a tenant refuses to leave at the end of their lease period, then you will need to take action in order to evict them. You should refuse all rent payments, as accepting money could create a month-to-month lease. You should also start the eviction process to get a writ of possession from a local court. Alternatively, you could offer a cash for keys deal to motivate the tenant to leave.
What Rights Do Squatters Have in Florida?
Squatting is not legal in Florida. However, squatters still have certain rights. As an initial matter, you can’t simply change the locks or get the sheriff to throw them out of the house. You will have to go through the legal system to get them off of your property.
Perhaps more importantly, squatters can gain legal title to your property through adverse possession if you do not take action against them. Adverse possession is a legal concept that allows a person to take possession of land even though they otherwise have no legal right to it. This often occurs when a neighbor uses a part of your land - but can also happen if a squatter moves onto your property.
The law presumes that the holder to the title of a piece of real estate is the owner. However, a person can make an adverse possession claim by proving that their possession was:
- Hostile (without permission and against the right of the true owner);
- Actual (exercising control over the property, such as by living on it);
- Exclusive (in their sole possession);
- Openly visible and notorious (not hiding their occupancy);
- Continuous for a period of 7 years or longer;
- Protected by a substantial enclosure, cultivated, maintained, or improved.
A person seeking to make an adverse possession claim must also have paid all outstanding taxes and any special improvement liens on the property within one year of taking possession. They must also file a form with the Department of Revenue.
The prospect of losing ownership to a squatter is scary. Fortunately, it is difficult to assert an adverse possession claim in Florida. If you believe that someone is illegally occupying your property, you should immediately take steps to remove them - which may include sending a letter or taking legal action to enforce your rights.
How Can I Legally Remove a Squatter?
Unfortunately, you cannot just throw a squatter out of your house. You will have to go through the court process. This is known as an unlawful detainer action.
Unlawful detainer lawsuits are not the same as eviction proceedings. Squatters are not tenants, and as such, they are not protected by Florida’s landlord-tenant laws. You do not have to provide a squatter with any form of written notice before filing an unlawful detainer action.
An unlawful detainer is filed in the county court where the property is located. Given the nature of this type of action, the timeline is expedited. After the lawsuit is filed and served on the squatter, they will have 5 days to respond to it. If they don’t respond within 5 days, then a judgment will be entered against them.
If a court finds that the defendant squatter acted willfully and knowingly, then they will award you damages in an amount that is double the reasonable rental value. This is in addition to any other money that you may be awarded to damage to your property.
Given the potential for an adverse possession action, it is important that you don’t simply ignore any squatters on your property. You should work with a lawyer to enforce your rights as the true owner of the property.
How Can I Keep Squatters Away from My Rental Properties?
The process to remove a squatter - and to fight an adverse possession claim - can be costly and time-consuming. Keeping your property free from squatters is a much better way to avoid these types of hassles.
You can do this in a number of ways, including:
- Regularly inspect your properties
- Secure your property, including both windows and doors, to prevent people from entering the property
- Post no trespassing signs on the property if you know it will be vacant for a period of time
- Pay your property taxes
If you own multiple properties or don’t live near your investment properties, it can be hard to keep tabs on what exactly is going on with them. In this situation, the best way to prevent squatters is to hire a property management company. They can help you find a reliable tenant and check on the property regularly to ensure that no one has moved into your home without your permission. In the greater Tampa Bay region, contact Eaton Realty to learn more about our property management services.
How Eaton Realty Can Help Protect Your Rights as a Property Owner
Being a landlord can be stressful enough without worrying about a squatter moving into your home unlawfully - or even attempting to claim title to your property! If you have squatters, then you must follow the law to remove them from your house. A property management company can help you avoid having squatters in the first place.
Based in Lithia, Eaton Realty works with landlords throughout Hillsborough County to market your properties, find great tenants, perform maintenance, and more. With significant experience in all aspects of Florida real estate, we have the knowledge and skills to help you turn a profit as a landlord. To learn more about what we can do for you, fill out our online contact form or call our office at 813-669-4474.