If someone is occupying your property and claiming to have ‘squatter’s rights’, it’s vital you understand your legal rights and obligations as a landlord.
There is also a big difference legally between people squatting in residential property and those doing it on commercial premises.
So, here’s our essential guide to dealing with squatters…
What is a squatter?
In law, a squatter is someone who has entered a property without the permission of the landlord with the intent to live there.
This means that tenants who fall behind in rent or refuse to pay are not deemed squatters as they originally rented the premises with the permission of the landlord.
What’s the difference in law between a squatter in residential and commercial property?
Squatting in a residential property is illegal and it can lead to six months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both.
Although squatting in commercial premises is not in itself a crime, it’s usually a crime to refuse to leave the premises when told to do so by police, the landlord, or the local authority, or when presented with a repossession order.
It is also a criminal offense to damage the property.
Can the police take action to deal with commercial premises squatters?
Only if crimes are committed when the squatters are entering the premises or while staying there.
This can include damaging the property to gain entry, damaging the property while living in it, stealing from it, fly-tipping, using gas or electricity without permission, refusing to comply with a noise abatement notice, and refusing to leave when to do so by a court.
Do squatters have rights in law?
The short answer is that squatters who have been at a property for a few weeks or months have no rights to the property.
They can, however, apply to become the registered owner of a property or piece of land if they or other squatters have continuously lived at the site for more than 10 years (or 12 years if it is not registered with the Land Registry), if they acted as owners for the whole of that time, and if none of the squatters was ever permitted to live at the site by a landlord.
The owner has 65 days to object to this application and it will usually be automatically rejected if they do.
Once a claim is rejected, the owner must take action to remove the squatters or they could reapply after two years.
How can you remove them?
If your squatters refuse to leave when you ask them to, you’ll need to apply for an interim possession order within 28 days of finding out about the situation.
You’ll be sent confirmation and documents you must give to the squatters within 48 hours.
Once they receive the IPO, if they refuse to leave within 24 hours or don’t stay away from the property for 12 months, they can face prison.
If you’re also making a claim for damages against them or it’s after the 28-day point, you’ll instead need to make a claim for possession.
Why should you use agents?
It’s so easy for a landlord to get into legal hot water if they try to deal with squatters themselves.
Attempting to remove them without an IPO or with the wrong order could leave a landlord facing legal proceedings.
Some squatters will want a confrontation to assault a building owner, or so that they can make counterclaims against landlords to the police for assault or harassment.
Trained agents who are well aware of their legal rights and duties will know what constitutes reasonable force when removing squatters from a property, how to apply this knowledge, and will look for a peaceful means of resolving the situation.
Having an agent there can also help to take difficult emotions out of the situation. Most squatters realise agents are simply doing a job and will opt to move on.