New State Law Protects Homeowners From Squatters - 27 East

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New State Law Protects Homeowners From Squatters

Joseph Finora on May 23, 2024

Legislation aimed at weakening so-called squatters’ rights was enacted as part of the New York State budget in April and became effective immediately.

The legislation identifies the term “squatter” as one who enters onto a property or building without title, right, or permission, and therefore is not subject to the same rights and protections of lawful tenants, occupants or owners. This also makes it clear that squatters do not get any rights or protections after 30 days of occupancy. It has been designed to make it easier in some cases for police to intervene when someone enters a home without permission or legal paperwork. This saves homeowners the costly trouble of having to take squatters to housing court. The changes are intended to give homeowners more protection from losing their property to squatters and give law-enforcement officers the authorization to detain violators.

Previously in New York, squatters had rights after 30 days, meaning the property owners could not change locks, remove belongings or stop utilities. Owners were subject to arrest if they took those steps.

“I have not had any reports of squatters, per se,” said New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor, who co-sponsored the bill, in an email. “There have been issues with holdover tenants.”

Tenants who stay beyond their lease expiration date are considered holdovers. Similar to a regular eviction process, landlords may be able to evict them through a holdover summary proceeding.

Despite help from Albany, untangling squatter issues is complicated and can be ugly. There is no specific database of squatter instances in Suffolk County, and over the years there have been various reports of squatters in the Hamptons — usually individuals looking for a rent-free dwelling who leave when they learn the owner is returning.

Not all squatters break into a property. They can be benign and difficult to identify, such as caretakers or personal aides who may or may not have an agreement with the owner to remain on a property.

Household help is often in a position to know when a house will be vacant and may have the keys to the front door and/or the security code. By keeping a low profile some occupants are able to stay illegally for long periods when they know the owner’s schedule, especially if the neighbors are familiar with seeing them around the property. However, with the proliferation of live video-surveillance systems it has become more difficult to remain in a building without permission.

Some squatters are malicious. Others are entrepreneurial and have actually rented rooms and/or garage space to others. Some truly have nowhere to go and are desperate for a roof over their head. A lot of this can be traced to COVID-19 pandemic chaos when exceptions were made to allow some tenants to remain in a home rent free or at a reduced rate. Since then, rents have largely skyrocketed and homes have become scarce. Wages haven’t kept pace with housing inflation, making it difficult for even employed people to be able to find affordable housing.

Conversely, landlords have also been known to misuse the term “squatter” in an effort to have a party evicted as part of a larger dispute. If tenants have a legitimate lease or the right to a lease, they are typically not a squatter and likely are in a more complicated, long-term disagreement with the landlord.

“Most people first call their local police department if they suspect a squatter,” said a spokesperson for the Suffolk County sheriff’s office. If it’s a case of breaking-and-entering then the police are the right call. If it’s not, then an eviction procedure needs to be executed by the owner, and the owner should probably consult with a property-law attorney.

If it is determined that the party is a squatter then the sheriff will remove the person from the premises. While there have been a few exceptions, the vast majority of squatters have no legal claim to the property they are occupying, i.e. a lease, deed or written permission, and while some have gone so far as to change locks and move-in belongings, they generally do not pay for things like taxes, utilities or maintenance.

To remove a squatter, the property owner has to go through New York’s legal eviction process. If the owner cannot be found it is easier for a squatter to become a legal owner but this is rare as they must live on the property for 10 years and pay taxes before claiming it as their own.

Previously, squatters’ rights, also known as “adverse possession,” allowed a squatter to occupy a property if the legitimate owner did not act within 30 days. In New York, trespassing is illegal, while squatting can be classified as a civil matter to be resolved in court. The distinction between squatting and trespassing is that a squatter intends to take ownership. Should a case make it to a court hearing, each party must present evidence supporting their ownership claim or right to occupy. If the court confirms the owner’s legal ownership, it issues a warrant for possession and the squatter will typically have 14 days to vacate.

Squatter removal can be a long, tedious affair. Earlier this year in Deer Park a couple had been living in a vacant home by presenting a judge with a fake lease forged with the dead owner’s signature, according to published reports. The occupants told a Nassau housing court judge that they rented the home from the owner for $1,500 a month, providing a two-year lease agreement allegedly signed by the owner, which included a provision they could become owners. The problem was the owner and his heirs were deceased and the document was a forgery. The home had no heat, electricity, hot water or working bathrooms. Eventually the occupants were evicted.

How To Stay ‘Squatter Free’

 

Update Home Security: Speak with a locksmith about installing more sophisticated locks then create a plan that secures all entranceways to your home, including from a garage and basement.

Communicate: Use lawn signs advertising an alarm service on your property. Similarly, anyone can buy a “Beware of Dog” sign even if they do not own a dog. Use electric timers to adjust lights and television sets to give the appearance that someone may be inside. Install an electronic surveillance system that can be accessed in real time from portable devices.

Hire a Security Firm: Consider a professional home security service to regularly inspect the premises, check entrances and be authorized to notify law enforcement if something is amiss.

Be Ready To Act Legally: Should you discover a squatter on your property do not take matters into your own hands. Request that local law enforcement remove squatters. If you’ve inherited a home, be sure deeds and property titles are current and indicate your ownership.

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