Before Joe Turner* could open the door to what should have been his empty rental unit—surprise—someone inside opened the door for him. A stranger introduced himself as the new resident.

Turner didn’t leave his property vacant and unattended for weeks, or even days, a situation squatters typically seek out. No, this person moved himself in on the same day Turner’s former tenants moved out.

“[The man] informed me that I would have to evict him, and that he intended to live there for free until he was evicted,” Turner says. “The way he figured it, he said, ‘It’ll take you about two months to get me out.’”

This type of situation might make most landlords speechless. Even though can be difficult to know how to react to this kind of shock, Turner did the right thing. He told the squatter he’d call the police if he didn’t get out immediately. The nervy squatter replied, “Go ahead. I’m calling the police too.”

Turner told the police the whole story, and the police gave the squatter four hours to move out. And…he did!

Turner replied with one word: “Whew.”

Obviously, this situation ended well for Turner, in part because of how he handled it. But not all squatter scenarios are the same. Let’s take a look at the possible conditions in which you might encounter a squatter, so you’ll know what do.

What’s a squatter?

A squatter is a person who unlawfully occupies property you own. When your tenant remains on your property without paying rent, that person is a “holdover tenant,” which is also known as “tenancy at sufferance.” You can consider that tenant a squatter, but technically, squatters never had permission to live there in the first place.

Sometimes squatters will act like they have rights to your property. Depending on the circumstances and local laws, sometimes they do. If a squatter has been allowed to occupy a property for some time, they might have the same landlord-tenant rights as holdover tenants.

Some jurisdictions are friendlier to squatters than others. San Francisco, for example, has a tenants’ union that helps squatters stay in properties.

The realities of the situation

Let’s say you have property that has been vacant and you haven’t visited it for awhile, which happened to Jay Glauber.

“After Hurricane Sandy, we moved from our house in Far Rockaway, New York,” he explained. “We locked the doors and discontinued all services to the premises (gas, electricity, etc.).” When Jay decided move back, surprise! Two people were living in his house.

Then what? When you find uninvited and unwelcome residents living in your property, can you kick them out?

It depends. In some cities, if squatters turned on utilities at that address in their name, they might be able to claim residency. Even though these people aren’t paying to live in your property, the police consider it a civil, not a criminal, matter.

To get the squatters out, you would need to open a court case. You probably know that most court systems aren’t the epitome of efficiency, so the case could take weeks or months to resolve.

Jay decided to call the police, but they couldn’t remove the squatters legally. So the case went to civil court. Before the court date, the squatters filed a complaint against Jay for $16,250 for not supplying them with heat. Jay didn’t appear in court, and the court ruled against him for a partial amount.

What you shouldn’t do

If you find a squatter living on your property, or if you have a tenant who stopped paying rent, you shouldn’t do the following:

Courts could view those acts as taking matters in your own hands, which could be illegal, so the courts could fine you.

Even though it may seem counterintuitive, it’s better to leave the utilities on. With a lack of electricity, the squatter might improvise and use candles that could start a fire. Or they might continue to use the bathroom facilities, even when the water isn’t running. Enough said.

What you should do

Try to avoid having a squatter take up residence at your property in the first place. If you plan to leave your property vacant, make sure it’s secure. You or a property management company should check on the place regularly.

You can also add a clause to your lease, which is what Turner did. His lease states: “You may have one overnight guest, two nights per month.”

I have a similar clause in my lease:

Limits on Use and Guests: The Premises are to be used only as a private residence for Tenant and any minors listed in Clause 2 of this Agreement, and for no other purposes without Landlord’s prior written consent. Occupancy by guests for more than ten (10) days in any six-month period is prohibited without Landlord’s written consent and will be considered a breach of this Agreement.

Take immediate action

  1. Call the police. Act immediately if you discover a squatter and call the police. The longer you wait, the more likely the courts will rule that you gave this person consent to be there. If the police declare the situation a civil matter, and won’t remove the squatter, start the eviction process.
  2. Give notice then file an unlawful detainer action. Once you serve the eviction notice, you could get lucky, and the squatter might leave. If not, you’ll need to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit, which is the formal way to evict. Make sure you follow your state’s laws.
  3. Hire the sheriff to force the squatter out. If the squatter is still sticking around after you’ve won your lawsuit, you’ll need to pay for a sheriff or police officer to get the person out.
  4. Legally handle the abandoned personal property. Find out what you can and cannot do with any stuff the squatter or holdover tenant might have left behind. You probably shouldn’t just get rid of it. You’ll need to follow proper procedure for your jurisdiction.

In conclusion

Protect yourself from squatters before they move in. If you own property that’s vacant, check on it regularly. If you don’t live in the area, ask a friend to check on it for you, or hire a management company to do the job.

If you take every precaution and still end up with a squatter, stay levelheaded. Call the police, and then file an eviction notice. Hopefully, you’ll get a lawful tenant living in your rental as soon as possible.

*Name changed for privacy