Property owners should know their state’s squatter laws to help protect their property from adverse possession claims. In Ohio, a squatter can gain ownership of a property by making an adverse possession claim after 21 years of occupancy.
When it comes to public opinion, squatting and trespassing seem to go hand-in-hand. It can be hard to know the difference—but the fact is, squatting is actually legal in many cases! Squatter laws, like landlord-tenant regulations, vary by state and help mediate between property owners and illegal renters.
Most states protect squatters, but they must meet certain criteria to establish legal title through adverse occupation. If you own property, you should know your state's squatter laws.
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Who’s considered a squatter in Ohio?
Squatting refers to the occupation of a property—typically one that’s unused, abandoned, or foreclosed—without express permission from the rightful property owner. The unlawful tenant is known as a squatter, and under certain conditions, can gain ownership of such properties. In Ohio, a squatter must occupy a property for at least 21 years before making a claim for legal ownership.
Since the 1850s, the United States government has enacted legislation to clarify squatter's rights. These regulations distinguish between legal squatting and illegal actions such as criminal trespass.
Squatting vs. trespassing vs. holdover tenants
So what are the legal distinctions between squatting versus trespassing? After all, at first glance, the two seem pretty similar. Ultimately, the difference lies in whether or not the property is occupied and whether or not the owner has told squatters they’re unwelcome.
Trespassing is a crime, but squatters have legal protections that render most squatting cases civil. A squatter is only a trespasser after the property owner makes them clear they're not welcome.
Where do holdover tenants fit in? In most cases, holdout renters have already signed a legal contract with the property owner. Trespassing occurs when a renter stays on the property after their lease expires unless they keep paying rent and the landlord allows it, in which case they become a tenant at will.
Adverse possession laws in Ohio
In Ohio, a squatter can gain legal ownership of a property via adverse possession law after 21 years of occupancy. Adverse possession is a principle of law that dictates legal acquisitions of another person’s property, usually by way of squatting.
To obtain property via adverse possession, however, there are certain criteria that must be met. Namely, a squatter must be able to prove continuous, exclusive, actual, hostile, and open and notorious possession of the property.
What does this all mean? Let’s break it down:
Continuous possession means a squatter must occupy the property for a successive amount of time. In Ohio, the minimum duration for adverse possession claims is 21 years. During this time, the squatter cannot vacate or abandon the property for an extended period—or else they must start the time period anew.
Exclusive possession pertains to the occupancy of the property. In order to gain land via adverse possession in Ohio, a squatter must prove they are the sole possessor of the property. A group of squatters, for example, could not file to jointly claim a property where they share occupancy.
Actual possession requires a squatter to remain on and use the property as if it were their own. This includes completing maintenance work, landscaping, or beautification efforts on the property—any efforts or expenditures made by the squatter to maintain the property as their own.
While the term “hostile” feels aggressive, in the context of adverse possession, it simply refers to the way that the squatter comes to occupy the property. While this does, in some cases, include instances where the squatter knows they’re illegally residing on the property (also called “awareness of trespassing”), it also includes cases of “simple” and “good faith” possession, wherein the squatter doesn’t know their presence isn’t lawful.
Open and notorious possession
Open and notorious possession, sometimes called "visible possession" in certain states, simply refers to the squatter's obvious presence on the property.
To acquire property through adverse possession, the squatter must not hide their occupancy. It should be apparent—including those who attempt to make reasonable investigations of the property—that the squatter is living there.
Does Ohio honor color of title claims?
The term “color of title” is particularly important in adverse possession law. But what, exactly, does a color of title do?
A color of title is a document (usually a written document) that can purport a squatter’s good faith belief in their claim to a property. Most commonly, it can look like a defective title to a property, or a missing or unregistered document. In any case, color of title can give an individual the false assumption that they own a property belonging to someone else.
In some cases, having a color of title can shorten the period of occupancy required to make adverse possession claims. In Ohio, however, this is not the case. An individual must reside on a property for 21 continuous years in order to make an adverse possession claim, even if they have color of title.
Having color of title can bolster an adverse possession claim in court, and once you’ve successfully completed an adverse possession claim you’ll acquire a legal color of title.
Key Takeaway In Ohio, a squatter must remain on a property for at least 21 continuous years before filing an adverse possession claim, regardless of color of title.
How to protect yourself from squatters
Now that you know a little more about your state’s squatter laws, learn how to protect your property from adverse possession by following these simple tips:
- Visit often: Extended absences from your property make it easier for squatters to take possession. Try to check on your property as often as possible. If you have to go away for a while, have someone else check on the property in your absence
- Secure the property: Lock doors and windows, and seal any other entrances to your property to prevent squatters from gaining access.
- Post signage: Posting “no trespassing” signs around your property can help let squatters know they’re unwelcome and protect you from adverse possession claims
- Pay property taxes on time: Paying your property taxes promptly can help establish your rightful ownership of the property, making it harder for squatters to take possession
If despite your efforts, you find your property has been occupied by squatters, you can handle the situation in a couple of ways.
If you don't want to rent the property to squatters, serve an eviction notice as soon as you notice them. This will inform the squatters that they are not welcome on the property and must leave.
If the squatters do not leave within the specified time, file an eviction with your local county court. Then there will be a trial with both you and the squatter(s) present.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure to follow the proper legal channels in addressing and vacating squatters from your property. Some actions—like shutting off utilities or threatening squatters personally—can land you in legal trouble.
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How long can squatters stay in Ohio?
In Ohio, the minimum period of occupancy required to make an adverse possession claim is 21 years.
Do squatters have to pay property taxes in Ohio?
No. In Ohio, a squatter does not have to pay property taxes in order to file an adverse possession claim.
Is it illegal to squat in a home?
Although squatting is technically illegal, squatters are still afforded legal protections, and the majority of squatting cases are handled in civil court and are not considered a criminal offense.