How to prevent unlawful squatters

Recently, homeowners in Rogina Heights were stunned to discover that after moving out of their home in preparation to sell, someone had setup living quarters there by crawling through the wood box (a box used to load firewood from the outdoors and access the wood from the indoors).

Squatting is on the rise and removing a squatter legally is not as easy as you might think. Why is it hard to remove a squatter from your property? Because the definition of “legal access” can be murky. People gain access to vacant properties in many ways, and squatters’ rights can make it cumbersome and expensive to dislodge them. So, when it comes to squatters, the best offense is good defense.

Start by securing your property. Keep doors and windows locked—and if you have a wood box, lock that too. Do not hide a key under the mat, on the trim above the front door, or under a plastic rock that clearly doesn’t belong in your garden. If someone wants to gain unlawful access, make them work for it.

Use lights on timers, ask neighbors to move your garbage cans to and from the curb each week, and connect motion sensors to the recording of a barking dog to dissuade unwelcome guests. If you can park a car there, so much the better.

Next, be wary of letting anyone into your vacant property without you. If you have a rental, do not provide the key so someone can look around and get back to you. From a technical standpoint, as soon as you give someone the key, you’ve given them possession of the property and they now have legal rights of tenancy.

Sometimes, people who may have gained access legally refuse to leave when they are supposed to. Decades ago, my brother owned rental properties in Chico. When a tenant stopped paying rent or refused to adhere to their lease agreement, he’d hire college kids and a locksmith and wait for the occupants to leave. When they did, my brother’s crew would move the occupants’ possessions onto the front lawn and change the locks. Problem solved.

Today, this is illegal and the potential financial ramifications of kicking someone out of your property without due process are extreme. In the case of a wayward renter, a formal eviction is typically your best course of action.

Years ago, a Realtor was greeted by a squatter when she went to show a house I had for sale. She called me and then the sheriff’s office. When the sheriff’s deputy showed up, the squatter said he had an agreement with me. He did not, and I was able to relay this to the deputy since I was on the phone with the Realtor at the time. The squatter then quickly changed his tune and said, “I’m a resident and I have squatter’s rights.” Happily for me, it was clear the squatter had entered the home illegally, so the deputy wasn’t having any of it. The squatter then refused to come out peacefully, and the deputy told him he was under arrest. At that point, the squatter acquiesced and said, “Okay, I’ll move,” but the opportunity to leave without handcuffs was no longer on the table.

To be clear, I have sympathy for those who are down on their luck. Being evicted from your home or kicked out of the place you’ve been staying would be awful. However, I also have sympathy for property owners who don’t deserve to have their property destroyed or to forego the income that pays for their property’s mortgage, insurance, and upkeep—and potentially, for other essentials such as food and medicine.

During COVID, housing regulations eased and allowed renters to remain put even if they couldn’t make payments. This set a bad precedent. If you end up with an unauthorized occupant, call law enforcement immediately. The sooner you act, the sooner you can get your house back. And a word to the wise: don’t go vigilante. Taking matters into your own hands can put you in legal jeopardy and potentially, in physical danger.

If you have questions about property management or real estate, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you have an idea for a future column, share it with me and if I use it, I’ll send you a $25 gift certificate to Schat’s Bakery.

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