Squatters rights is the colloquial equivalent to the legal term "adverse possession" and describes a method under common law for claiming property by taking up the rights and responsibilities of the property owner. A squatter is a person who is living on or using someone else's property without permission and who has been able to put the property to use for an extended period of time. For instance, a person who has moved into an empty apartment or abandoned building and has taken up residence, caring for the property and looking after any relevant maintenance over a period of years, might claim squatters rights. In principle, squatters rights discourage property owners from neglecting or abandoning their properties.
To successfully claim squatters rights, the squatter must satisfy a number of legal conditions. Squatters must openly use the property in a manner that can be observed by the property’s owner and the general public, and the squatter may not hold a property for any other party. Actual property owners must not consent to the property’s use by the squatter, and the squatter must continue to use the property for an extended period of time without interruption, a period which varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but usually is at least five years. When all of the conditions for squatters rights have been met, the squatter may begin legal proceedings to claim the title to the property.
In many places, squatting is an issue of civil law rather than a criminal matter, meaning that police might very well be powerless to act. Property owners faced with squatters should resist the urge to take drastic action such as cutting off utilities or change the locks. Simple acts such as setting up a phone line or garbage collection can provide enough proof for the squatter to claim residency and the rights of a tenant. Owners found to have violated those rights can face stiff fines and civil legal action. The removal of squatters often requires a formal eviction, which is a long and often expensive process.
Claims of adverse possession do not necessarily require that the squatter live on the property in question. For instance, gardening that extends onto the next property over a period of years might justify a claim for squatters rights on the portion of the neighbor’s property being used. A squatter would not have to use a vacation home as a primary residence to claim squatters rights but might be required to demonstrate regular use and maintenance as well as the absence of the actual owner.