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Philadelphia Squatters Rights and How to Navigate Them

By Nicole Sarrate

Brotherly Love Real Estate

In the last few years Philadelphia squatters rights have played tug of war at City Hall, so it’s no surprise why many are confused. Specifically considering everything that happens in City Hall is usually quite clear (tongue, meet cheek). 

 

Fortunately, these changes have perks if you’re a Philadelphia landlord or tenant. 

 

Whether you’re here to better understand these changes or are just reading up on this subject for the first time, I promise your time will be well spent. You know, because you’re spending it with me.

Philadelphia Squatters

 

A young woman stumbling along shimmies her way through the back door of an abandoned house to stay the night. The next night she does the same and continues for weeks after that until she’s made herself comfortable. 

 

Trespasser, Squatter, or Tenant? 

 

Too easy? You would think…. 

 

Okay, how about, a businessman who is in town for a few months rents an apartment. He signs a lease, pays a security deposit and 1st month’s rent upon move-in, but a few weeks later, a man is at his door claiming he has to move out.   

 

In the first scenario, the landlord would consider this a trespasser, and in the second scenario, the businessman would consider himself a tenant. But squatters rights in Philadelphia PA may have more to say. 

 

The law may not be able to cover it all, but there are some straightforward situations between these three terms, and specific ways to deal with each: 

  • Trespasser: Time is key here as it’s the main difference between Philadelphia squatters and trespassers. If someone without authorization accesses the property temporarily, they would be considered a trespasser. 
    • If you’re dealing with a trespasser, call the police. 
  • Squatter: anyone who occupies a property consecutively as their sole residence without legal authorization. 
    • We’ll be talking all about what this means and what to do here so you’re at the right place. 
  • Tenant or Holdover Tenant: This is anyone you have a landlord-tenant relationship with. This may be through a written or verbal lease. Even if the lease has expired and they refuse to leave, which would classify them as a holdover tenant. In other words, anyone you’ve collected compensation from for residing at the property. 

 

To best determine how to evict a squatter in Philadelphia, let’s get into more detail on how to ID them!

 

A neighbor calls you because someone is breaking through your window. Clear, cut and dry, trespassing; call the police.

 

You purchase a foreclosed home, but the previous owner won’t leave – squatter. A previous tenant’s ex who wasn’t on the lease won’t move out – squatter. A random person moves in and refuses to leave, come on, together now – 1, 2, 3: SQUATTER! 

 

Here are some of the criteria which may sway law enforcement or a judge to classify your uninvited guest as a Philadelphia squatter instead of a trespasser: 

  • Has been living on the property for more than two weeks (although this one falls into a grey area)
  • Maintains and/or beautifies the property 
  • Transfers to their name, or pays, utilities 
  • Pays property taxes
  • Has their mail delivered to the property 
  • Moved in furniture
  • Has a legitimate emergency to access the property without authorization

 

Now, time for the disclaimer. Each jurisdiction and judge may have different criteria to identify who falls under Philadelphia squatters rights. There is also some ambiguity if you purchase a property knowing they are squatters, so in that case, it wouldn’t hurt to consult with an attorney first. 

 

One important distinction is that trespassing is a criminal offense while squatting is handled by the civil courts. This is critical because, while you should steer away from taking either matter into your own hands, if you unlawfully remove a squatter, you may face legal consequences. 

 

This is referred to as an improper or self-help eviction, as defined in Section 9-1602 (i.e. changing the locks, cutting off utilities, threatening the tenant, using force, removing their belongings, etc.). So even though the first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club, leave the crew at Lou’s Tavern.

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Squatters Rights in Philadelphia PA

 

Keep in mind, while you must abide by Philadelphia squatters rights, the much-feared ultimate takeover named adverse possession is rare.

 

Sure, a squatter may show falsified paperwork or documents to law enforcement to try to prove possession, which is illegal, but the process for adverse possession is more stringent than that. 

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According to Philadelphia squatter rights, to qualify for adverse possession a squatter must

  • Be occupying a property that is not in use. 
    • Meaning, if your tenants go on vacation and someone makes the home theirs for a month, they do not fall under the Philadelphia squatter rights. [Note to self: add month-long vacation to list of goals.]
  • Occupy the property for 21 years, for most properties (Title 42), and 10 years, for single-family homes on a lot less than one-half acre (2018 Act 34). 
    • This is one of the changes made in recent years that favors the tenant, making it easier for Philadelphia squatters to claim adverse possession. 
  • Continuously occupy the property for the applicable time. 
    • If they leave for a significant period (weeks +), the clock restarts. 
  • Not have the owner’s authorization to use the property. Otherwise known as a “hostile” occupation. 
    • This could apply whether or not the person occupying the property is aware that they don’t have permission. 
  • Have actual possession of the property and uses it as their residence. 
  • Be openly occupying the property. They cannot be living on the property in secret. 
  • Exclusively have possession of the land. 
    • They may not share the land with strangers, the owner, or other tenants, and must be trying to prevent others, including the owner, from use.

You may be wondering if Philadelphia squatters must pay property taxes to claim adverse possession since some states do require this. Short answer: no. Longer answer: no, but it will help their case if they do. 

Philadelphia Squatter Rights Recent Updates

 

If you’ve been a property owner for some time in Philly, you may know that squatters have been a concern for many. If not and you’d like to know more, here’s a brief video by Axis Philly  describing this issue. 

 

However, in 2018 the Philadelphia City Council passed a law to help property owners from predatory squatters. 

 

The new law established a legal procedure to expedite the removal of Philadelphia squatters. Whereas previously squatters went through the landlord-tenant eviction process, which is costly and could take months, the new procedure through the Court of Common Pleas is intended to reduce costs and expedite the process to 30 days. 

 

Although still a civil case, in addition to new fines, this law also added criminal consequences for squatters. However, I suspect this was used as a bargaining chip on later negotiations to pass an amendment in late 2018

 

Why you ask? In a nutshell, some were concerned the original bill was too ambiguous, leaving victims of scams, abuse, and harassment vulnerable. So, the amendment added protections for these victims, and also increased penalties from $300 per day to $1,000 for first-time offenders and $2,000 for repeat offenders, while keeping the potential for a 90-days jail sentence.

 

Remember our “Trespasser, Squatter, or Tenant?” game? This is why those examples aren’t as straightforward as they may have seemed. While that stumbling young woman would be the model definition of a squatter, if she was squatting to protect herself from living with abuse or harassment, this law would protect her. 

 

As it would help the businessman who was scammed by the fake landlord. The amendment includes additional consequences and protections in this situation, by adding fines of up to $2,000 or imprisonment of up to 90 days and gives the victims the chance to recover damages. 

 

These victims would not face the new penalties this law created. However, they would still need to leave the property within 15 days. 

 

Essentially the new laws streamlined how to evict squatters in Philadelphia, empowers police to investigate the ambiguities between a trespasser or a squatter, and added consequences to deter squatting while aiming to protect vulnerable citizens. 

Philadelphia squatters rights recent update

Preventing Philadelphia Squatters

 

Of course, it’s always good to have the law on your side, but there are additional things you may do to help protect yourself against Philadelphia squatters

  • Monitor rental listings – you may set-up alerts for the address, so you receive automatic notifications. Pro Tip: if you’re a landlord, it’s always a good idea to keep a pulse on your market. 
  • Inspect the property regularly if it’s vacant – if you’re unable to do so personally, you can either hire someone or ask one of your mates to help you out. 
  • Befriend the neighbors so they keep an eye out for you – I would suggest this in addition to (not, instead of) the above. Even the most willing neighbors may not always be around to see someone sneak into the property. This is why it’s best to have someone who can enter the property to inspect for signs of use. 
  • Make sure the property is secure – check all possible entry points to confirm they are locked and that nothing has been broken. 
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  • Put “No Trespassing” signs at the property – because everyone honors an authoritative sign… ha! This may not prevent anyone from trying, but it will give law enforcement additional leverage to remove uninvited guests. 
  • Have someone legitimately occupy the property quickly – there are many ways to accomplish this; here are a few examples:
    • Ideally, this would be done by renting it out ASAP. If you have vacant apartments, focus on your marketing efforts. This is extra necessary as vacancies are one of the biggest cash flow killers around. 
    • If the property is not habitable, see if someone is interested in renting some space at the property as storage. Just be sure to apply these extra security measures to protect that property as well. 
    • If there’s a reason you’re unable to rent it out quickly, see if there is family or friends that can utilize the space during that time so there is movement at the property. 
  • Make the property look occupied – even if no one can use the space, there are ways to make it look as if it’s being used. For example, use automatic systems to control the indoor lighting even if no one is there. Come on, admit it, you’ve wanted to recreate Home Alone since you were a kid anyway! 
  • Install a security system and post signs from the security company at the property stating the property is being monitored.  

How to Evict a Squatter in Philadelphia

 

Sorry to hear you’re dealing with Philadelphia squatters, but don’t fret, I’m here for you. 

 

Thanks to the new laws, the process on how to evict a squatter in Philadelphia is much less complicated. So, let’s go through the steps. 

 

STEP 1: Document EVERYTHING!! This is an overarching step on anything you do as a landlord, but I included it as #1 here because it’s extra important to keep records when dealing with any type of eviction. 

 

STEP 2: Inform the police and the Licenses and Inspections Department immediately. Now that better laws are in place, law enforcement and city officials are in a better position to determine if an unwanted guest is a trespasser or a squatter. Even if the person is deemed a squatter, it further helps you (and supports your documentation!) to have these reports on record. 

 

Pro Tip: Have proof of ownership ready for law enforcement when they arrive at the property. 

 

STEP 3: If law enforcement will not remove an unauthorized occupant because of Philadelphia squatter rights, file a Complaint for Ejectment. This is a pretty straightforward process so, shy of any complications, you may do so without an attorney. The process is explained pretty thoroughly in the Ejectment Package by the Office of Judicial Records.

 

Just one important note on this process, after filing the Complaint for Ejectment be sure to file the affidavit with both the city and law enforcement. This gives you the right to request an expedited hearing date with the Court of Common Pleas and permits the police to launch an investigation. 

 

STEP 4: If the squatter has left any property after they have vacated, try to notify them as best as possible. You may need to store the property for up to 30 days, after which time, feel free to use it as target practice. Jokes, a window into the soul. 

 

See! Not so bad, right? Is it just me or was this kind of fun?! Oh, ok, just me then…. 

 

Nonetheless, I hope this helps clear things up a bit. If you continue to have issues, contact us and we’ll be happy to see if we can help. 

 

While this journey may have begun with jokes about City Hall, at the end of the day, the new laws have improved how to evict squatters in Philadelphia and have made it easier to navigate Philadelphia squatter rights. These new laws combined with preventative measures and the knowledge you’ve gained by being here with me today will leave you better prepared to deal with Philadelphia squatters

 

Disclaimer: Brotherly Love Real Estate is not an attorney or law office. This guide has information gathered from public online sources. Please consult a real estate attorney before acting on anything concerning a Philadelphia eviction.

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