Beware of Sophisticated Squatters: Protect Your Property in California

GOMEZ LAW, APC Oct. 4, 2017

Studies released in 2015 revealed that California has 21 percent of the country’s homeless population, totaling around 116,000 people. Owning property and letting it sit idle can now be considered not only a waste of space but also a risky proposition for the owner due to the rise of "Sophisticated Squatters." Adverse possession, as outlined in California Code of Civil Procedure sections 315 to 329.5, enables individuals who publicly move into a neglected property to acquire legal title after living there continuously for at least five years. The possession must be "open and notorious," and during these five years, these individuals, referred to as "squatters," must act as a true owner, including paying utilities and property taxes.

A recent trend has seen an increase in "Sophisticated Squatters," who target properties—usually houses, townhomes, and condominiums—whose owners are out of state. These squatters systematically search for such properties and form legal plans to take ownership through adverse possession. Unlike traditional squatters, these individuals are well-organized and strategic in their approach.

Squatters in California: A Growing Issue

Squatting has become a significant issue in California, with reports of squatters taking over single-family homes in subdivisions affected by the last decade’s housing bust. Squatting in upscale coastal communities has also become commonplace. A recent case involved a squatter who took possession of a condominium, paid property taxes and HOA dues, and even attended and voted at HOA board meetings. Everyone believed the squatter’s claim that he had purchased the property in a private sale. The property owner, who inherited the property free and clear, forgot about the HOA dues and property taxes, leading to this situation.

California law (Civil Code section 5260) requires HOAs to send specific notices to two different addresses provided by the owner. However, if the owner does not update the addresses, there is nothing the HOA can do. Even if the squatter did not gain title by adverse possession, the owner still faces the task of evicting the squatter, a process that should be handled by an attorney due to its technical nature.

What Property Owners Should Know

Out-of-area property owners should remember their responsibilities: paying property taxes, HOA dues, utilities, and property insurance. If you are not receiving utility bills or contact from the homeowner’s association, do not assume there are no payments to be made. This could indicate that a squatter is living in your property and paying instead of you. It is your responsibility to contact the homeowner’s association and utility companies to address the issue.

History of Adverse Possession

Adverse possession has a long history. Under Roman law, a person who took possession of a good became the owner if the original owner did not show up within one or two years. The Napoleonic Code included adverse possession, recognizing two time periods for property acquisition (30 years and less). This code influenced the laws of several European countries. In England, squatting is intertwined with its history of property and land acquisition, a practice that took root in America as well.

Understanding these details and staying vigilant can help property owners protect their investments and avoid the complications of dealing with sophisticated squatters.