Question: What are squatters’ rights in California?

Answer: Squatters’ rights occur when an individual makes a claim of adverse possession, by openly using and possessing the property for five uninterrupted years, paying current and past delinquent property taxes and meeting other criteria, mentioned below.

Squatters’ rights come about when an individual takes ownership of real property not legally belonging to them, known as adverse possession.

Adverse possession is the only means by which the law will take 100% of an individual’s legal ownership interest in a parcel of real estate and give it to another individual without compensation.

The idea of adverse possession is based on the social and economic rationale that real estate is not to lie unused. An individual who puts another’s land to use without interference or compensation and pays property taxes — ad valorem — is allowed (in time) to enjoy the benefits of ownership.

This “use it or lose it” rationale has remained unchanged since its inception when the doctrine of adverse possession was established to dispossess medieval lords of their stranglehold on fertile farmland in England.

Adverse possession in practice

Perpetrators of adverse possession may do so knowingly, or unknowingly.

For example, consider a property which is conveyed by a recorded grant deed to an individual on the distribution of a deceased relative’s estate. The individual takes possession of the property and exercises the rights and responsibilities of ownership, unknowingly taking adverse possession.

Later, it is discovered the deceased relative in fact was only a lessee, not the recorded owner of the property, and had no legal title to convey. However, the individual has an adverse possession claim to the property based on the color of title since they had a good faith belief the deed they received was valid. [Helvey v. Lillis (1934) 136 CA 644]

On the other hand, squatters who knowingly attempt adverse possession are also lurking. Just how does a squatter accomplish such a feat?

Squatters most commonly win adverse possession over properties in one of two situations. In these cases, the property is:

  • vacant and left for a future use by the owner, often located in a rural, seldom-visited corner of the state; or
  • a portion of the owner’s lot of which they are unaware belongs to them, an ignorance their neighbor takes advantage of.

Any person claiming title to property through adverse possession needs to satisfy specific criteria to perfect their claim of ownership. If the adverse possessor fails to meet any criterion, their claim to ownership fails as it has not been perfected. The criteria for perfecting ownership by an adverse possession claim are:

  • a color of title or claim of right to title;
  • actual, notorious and open possession;
  • hostile, adverse and exclusive use;
  • continuous and uninterrupted possession for five years; and
  • payment of current and delinquent real estate taxes and assessments. [Gilardi v. Hallam (1981) 30 C3d 317]

A tenant who attempts to claim squatters’ rights will face obstacles. That’s because a lease or rental agreement involves the owner’s express permission for the tenant to occupy the property. If, after the lease is over, the tenant attempts to take adverse possession of the property, their claim will be barred when they occupy the property under a lease or rental agreement at any time during their five-year claim.

Related article:

Brokerage Reminder: Protect yourself against adverse possession