A popular social media account, Humans of New York, serves as a photographer’s account of the people who live, work, and play in New York City. Not long ago, there was a post that caught our attention. The picture was of a young man standing outside an apartment building, and in the caption, we learned a bit more about his daily life:
I help maintain properties for absentee landlords. I think most people imagine landlords to be rich guys on Long Island. But most of my clients only own one or two properties. A lot of times, they were inherited. Part of my job is helping to get squatters out of the buildings. There are professional squatters out there. You can’t even call them criminals. They know the laws, and they’re working within the system. If you catch somebody breaking into your house-- that’s ‘breaking and entering.’ But if you happen to live out of state, and somebody breaks into your house, and you don’t notice for six months, then that person becomes your tenant. It doesn’t matter if you gave them permission or not. If you want to evict them, you have to go through the legal system, which is very expensive. So it’s usually cheaper to pay the squatters off.
The young man goes on to describe how he’s been trying to evict this one squatter who has been living in an old apartment building for six years without paying a dime. “We’re offering him $80,000 to leave, and he’s asking for more.”
At first, this may sound like a bit of an exaggeration. Can someone hole up in an apartment for a few months and then call the place their own?
It turns out; they can.
When a person takes “adverse possession” of a home, the legal term for occupying someone else’s property, they obtain what are known as “squatters’ rights.” In the State of New York, a person has to live on the property openly and without permission of the owner for a period of at least ten consecutive years to be able to claim “adverse possession.” However, New York City has its own set of zealous adverse possession laws – and those laws grant a person squatters’ rights after just 30 days! 30 DAYS!
After 30 days, a NYC squatter has the right to continue living there until the actual owner goes through the process of legal eviction. Just as the person in the HONY post described, the NYC eviction process is lengthy (up to a year) and expensive. For some landlords, it can be easier to pay the squatter off than pay a hefty legal bill.
Stories about squatters aren’t uncommon. Take the case of Maria Diaz: the 62-year-old bought an investment property in 2006. In February 2013, Diaz stopped renting the property, and it sat vacant for some time. Facing foreclosure, Diaz went to put the house on the market only to find a cab driver had been living there for months.
“It’s absurd that he is allowed to live here,” said Diaz’s daughter. “Whom the heck is expecting someone to go into your house and plop their feet down like that?”
Naturally, they tried to evict the squatter. Diaz’s daughter called the police and reported the stranger for trespassing. Police removed the man, and the family immediately changed the locks. The problem is the man had already established squatter rights and kicking him out constituted illegal eviction. The inhabitant took the Diaz family to housing court, where the judge allowed him back onto the property just a few days later.
Now, Diaz is forced to go through the lengthy legal battle to properly evict him via court order – a process that will make it almost impossible for Diaz to sell the property.
Squatters are a problem for every landlord, particularly in cities and states where adverse possession can be established so quickly. A few tips to protect yourself from getting into one of these scenarios:
If you do not have (rent-paying) tenants for your property, make sure your apartment is well-secured to prevent anyone from breaking in and making themselves at home.
Check on your vacant property, intermittently. In a city like New York where it only takes 30 days to establish adverse possession, visits should occur at least this frequently. If you are an absentee landlord, ask a friend or family member in the area to check on the apartment, or hire a property manager to keep things in order.
Know your local laws regarding squatters’ rights and the eviction process. In NYC, the process begins by serving the squatter a Notice to Quit, giving him ten days to vacate the property. If the squatter refuses, then you must file a holdover petition with the court to set the eviction process in motion.
Make sure you have adequate homeowners or renters insurance and liability coverage in the event a squatter nestles in and causes any damage.
Prevention is always the best strategy, but sometimes even the most cautious of landlords can’t stop unwelcome visitors from camping out. If you find a squatter on your property, call an attorney and be sure to follow all local procedures for eviction as laws inconspicuously vary from mild to wild in various states.