Stop Squatters Before It’s Too Late: How To Keep Unlawful Occupants From Taking Over Your Home

by Garcia Chris
9 minutes read
Stop Squatters Before It’s Too Late: How To Keep Unlawful Occupants From Taking Over Your Home

Squatting is on the rise: Across the country, homeowners have returned to their vacant properties only to discover that squatters have broken in, made themselves comfortable, and are refusing to leave.

Even worse, very little can be done to get them out.

KIRO 7 News in Washington reported last fall on Rainer Valley homeowner Jason Roth, who had a tenant who was no longer making rent payments but refused to leave the property. Without that rental income, Roth was forced to give up his own home and live in his car. Meanwhile, his squatter was not only living in Roth’s property rent-free, but also renting out the basement on Airbnb.

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Homeowners who attempt to take the law into their own hands often find that these attempts backfire. This was the case with Adele Andaloro—who, after finding his childhood home occupied by squatters, changed the locks. Police ended up arresting Andaloro, while her squatters remained on her property.

Sometimes, confrontations between homeowners and squatters can turn violent or even deadly.

In March, 52-year-old Nadia Vitel entered her family’s New York apartment only to find it occupied by two teen squatters. They allegedly killed Vitel, stuffing her into a duffel bag in the closet, where she was later discovered by her son.

Why squatting is on the rise

Squatting surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many states eased their housing regulations and allowed renters to remain in their homes even if they couldn’t make their monthly payments. During the same period, the housing market exploded. Rents shot up, home prices rose to all-time highs, and inflation skyrocketed, leaving many unable to pay for housing.

Real estate professional and attorney Bruce Ailion, of Re/Max Town & Country in Atlanta, chalks the rise in squatting up to “economic stress.”

“With unemployment at or near 50-year lows and ‘Help Wanted’ signs in every storefront, it is hard to understand economic stress,” says Ailion. “Yet there are people with low education, no skills, mental health and physical health challenges who cannot afford a place to live. COVID-era eviction bans protected some of these people, and they became accustomed to not paying for a place to live.”

Once trespassers make their way into a home, it is difficult to get rid of them due to strong tenants’ rights laws—and, in some cases, squatters’ rights.

In New York, for instance, squatters can’t be evicted after just 30 days of living in a property. These rights mean a property owner can’t change the locks to the home to keep the squatter out, turn off utilities, or dispose of the squatter’s possessions in the home. Instead, the only recourse a homeowner has is to take the squatter to court and wage a costly legal battle.

How to stop squatters

What can a homeowner do with a vacant property—whether a vacation home or an empty house awaiting sale or rent—to deter squatters?

“The key to protecting yourself from squatters is preventing them from entering in the first place,” says Ailion. “Once a squatter has possession of the home in Georgia, it is currently more difficult to get them out than getting a delinquent tenant out.”

To prevent your dream home from becoming a squatter nightmare, here are five strategies for preventing illegal inhabitants from taking over your property.

1. Level up your home security

If potential squatters can’t get in, you don’t have to worry about getting them out, so the first line of defense is to make your property impenetrable. This means fortifying all entry points, including doors, windows, and other potential access areas.

But you must think like a squatter bent on taking over your home and invest in next-level locks.

Fortifying all entry points, including doors, windows, and potential access areas, is essential.

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“We have had squatters break open a lockbox, had a locksmith rekey to enter, and people use a key they legitimately got out of a coded lockbox,” says Alion

He advises forgoing cheap locks and deadbolts, which he can open “in about 10 seconds.” Instead, he buys directly from a locksmith, who has higher-grade locks that are hard to compromise.

As for windows, reinforce them with security bars or screw them shut. Once every entry point is locked down, monitor the home with a video security system.

“Ring and Amazon’s Alexa are popular, but if you desire stronger privacy and cybersecurity settings, there are other reliable brands like LaView and local favorites like Virtually Automated,” says Lee Davenport, a real estate coach, author, and former Re/Max managing broker.

You can also add motion-sensing lights or alarms and post “No Trespassing” signs around your property to reinforce your legal rights and discourage unauthorized entry.

2. Make your home look like someone’s living there

Squatters often target properties that appear vacant for extended periods. To prevent this perception, create the illusion that someone is currently living in a vacant property.

“Make the home look occupied with a car in the driveway and lights on timers that go on and off regularly,” says Ailion. He also suggests adding security signs, one that says the property is patrolled for security and one that reads “Beware of Dog”—even if you don’t employ a security company or have a dog.

Take steps, like keeping a car in the driveway, to maintain the appearance of occupancy.

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“One client of mine got a device that, when it detected motion outside, would start loudly barking, and I mean loudly barking,” says Ailion. “I had an agent call to say she was afraid to go inside because of the dog.”

Making your home look lived-in will help to discourage potential squatters from attempting to take over.

3. Regularly stop by your home

Keeping a virtual eye on your property is great, but seeing your property with your own eyes is crucial for detecting any unauthorized activity or signs of squatting early.

“Regular property inspections can help identify any signs of unauthorized occupancy early on,” says Armstead Jones, strategic real estate adviser at House Cashin.

If you live too far away for timely check-ins, establish a network of trusted neighbors or nearby friends who can report any suspicious behavior or potential squatters on your property. By staying vigilant and proactive in monitoring your property, you can intervene promptly if squatters attempt to encroach.

4. Take legal action ASAP

Establish legal property ownership to assert your rights and deter squatters. If you’ve inherited a home, ensure that all necessary paperwork, including deeds and property titles, is current and reflects your ownership.

If your property is part of a homeowners association or governed by specific regulations, stay informed about any requirements or procedures related to property ownership.

Also keep in mind that, despite your best efforts, there’s always a possibility that squatters might attempt to take over your property.

If they do, it’s essential to take immediate legal action to reclaim possession of your property and prevent further trespassing or damage.

Contact local law enforcement to report the squatting activity and ask for their help ousting the squatters. Note that police usually can’t remove squatters, so you’ll have to call your local sheriff instead. If the squatters refuse to leave, consult a qualified attorney specializing in property law to understand your rights and legal options for eviction proceedings.

To support your case in court, document all evidence of squatting and property damage, including photographs, witness statements from neighbors, and any communication with the squatters.

5. Don’t go the vigilante route

If you find someone on your property who won’t leave, don’t take matters into your own hands.

“I’ve had two squatters in an inventory of 80 homes,” says Ailion. “One was what seemed like a homeless young woman. Against my advice, the owners flew here from Canada, hired a mercenary, ex-Marine Special Forces, to watch the house, and when she left, took possession and secured it with the measures I outlined above.”

While the homeowners were able to reclaim their home, Ailion says this route is “physically dangerous” and opened the homeowners to “possible legal consequences.” (Ailion is part of a political advocacy team in Georgia pushing the Squatter Reform Act, which has passed the state House and is waiting for approval from the state Senate. The bill “gives magistrates additional powers to process criminal trespass violations and introduces the offense of unlawful squatting.”)

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“Some people may squat with malicious intent, but others may be down on their luck,” Davenport adds. “Our aim can be to direct the latter to resources that can help them get back on their feet.”

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