How can homeowners prevent squatters? Experts share ‘vital’ tips for defending your home

Installing timed interior lighting and having piled up trash removed are some of the ways to ward off squatters

Amid a surge in stories of squatting, whereby strangers move into the properties of American homeowners and refuse to leave, experts are urging residents to enact measures that make it appear the vacant home is occupied to avoid costly legal proceedings.

New York-based real estate professional Jim Gray told Fox News Digital that he has seen firsthand how a squatting situation can escalate from a nuisance to a recurring nightmare for well-intentioned homeowners.

In his opinion, the best offense is always a good defense. On Day One, owners should establish clear signs of occupancy or develop security measures. This can include keeping the curtains drawn irregularly, installing a smart home security system, and avoiding tell-tale signs of occupancy, like accumulations of trash or mail.

Property owners, Gray recommended, may also want to consult local law enforcement to request periodic drive-by patrols.


Tips to prevent squatting with home securitu
Real estate and legal experts told Fox News Digital homeowners should take preventative measures to make sure their properties appear occupied and have security systems.  (Photo by James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle/Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Justin Sullivan/Getty Images / Getty Images)
"An empty home represents a blank canvas ripe for the taking, luring in unscrupulous intruders like moths to unguarded flames," Gray said.

Raleigh Realty owner Ryan Fitzgerald told Fox News Digital the alarming trend of squatters occupying vacant properties "poses a real risk to homeowners."

Fitzgerald said homeowners should put signs in windows, install timed interior lighting and swing by the property at least biweekly, if not more.

"The faster you notice broken locks or signs of trespassing, the quicker you can react," he said.

Unfortunately, even the most proactive homeowners can still find themselves scrambling for solutions should a squatter breach their property.

Several high-profile stories involving squatters prompted Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign legislation into law that eliminates squatters' rights in the Sunshine State and increases penalties against offenders.
The White House also spoke out on the squatting trend, calling it a "local issue" that local governments must address.

One of the most recent stories involved eight migrants who were arrested by the Department of Homeland Security in connection with squatting, drugs, and gun violations at a New York City house.

Airbnb Squatter Los Angeles
Aleksandar Jovanovic, an Airbnb landlord, explains his situation with a squatter on the deck of his Los Angeles home.  (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images / Getty Images)

A Dallas-area woman also spoke out after a squatter allegedly trashed her home and sold her belongings while she was taking care of a family member in another state.

Fitzgerald urged property owners to take dated photos and videos showing unauthorized access and habitation and contact law enforcement to report illegal occupation officially.

While cumbersome, Fitzgerald said legal eviction may be required to remove entrenched squatters who claim "tenants' rights."

"I once had clients who were renovating a home when squatters took over, using the premises for drug dealing. We had to go through a months-long eviction process, costing time and money," Fitzgerald said.

"However, our diligent documentation helped law enforcement remove the bad actors and let my clients regain possession. While extreme cases are rare, it's vital homeowners stay vigilant," he continued.

Steven Katz, an attorney focused on real estate litigation and experienced in eviction court, the court a property owner would go through to remove a squatter.

Laws governing squatters' rights are handled at the state level and are not uniform throughout the country. Katz said it is important to realize there is a significant legal difference between a trespasser and a squatter.

Penn. home
A home on Fifth St. in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, that was the site of squatter activity.  (Google Maps )
"Generally, a squatter is not just someone who enters your property – but someone who stays continuously for an extended period of time. In other words, if someone enters your property unlawfully, you want to immediately call the police to have that person removed as a trespasser," he said.

Legally speaking, Katz said in many places, a squatter is no different from a holdover tenant whose lease has expired but refuses to vacate. They are also not dissimilar to a tenant who has stopped paying rent.

Should a homeowner discover a squatter in their property, Katz said it may be as simple as serving a three-day notice to vacate the property, followed by formal eviction proceedings in court. If the owner succeeds, they can apply for a "red tag" whereby a bailiff or sheriff will forcibly remove the squatter.

Gray noted that in many states, the burden of proof typically falls on owners to substantiate their claim to the property in question.

Squatters can gain certain legal rights under specific conditions, such as continuous occupation for a defined period, typically ranging from 5 to 20 years, depending on the state.

"This makes promptly securing legal counsel an absolute imperative to initiate the formal eviction process correctly. Furthermore, under no circumstances should owners attempt confrontational 'self-help' eviction tactics, as this often strengthens tenants' legal standing," he added.

debris left inside a Maryland home
Debris left by squatters inside a Maryland home. (Carol Park / Fox News)

Situations can become even murkier if tenants can establish residency by performing basic dwelling tasks like cooking, cleaning and receiving mail. Grey said this typically leads courts to grant longer eviction notice periods and due process scrutiny. Criminal trespassing charges can also be jeopardized if residency appears to be established by the squatter before removal.

"However, when situations devolve into out-and-out burglary, vandalism, or other criminal conduct, the squatters lose any sympathetic consideration. At that point, promptly acquired temporary restraining orders and injunctive relief from local law enforcement become essential tools for owners to reclaim possession swiftly," Gray said.
He also advised homeowners to document everything, coordinate closely with legal representation and remain "steadfast yet sensitive" when law enforcement finally executes a removal.

"A victorious but scorched-earth outcome helps no one," Gray said.

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