Guide To: Ejecting a Squatter in Philadelphia: The Difference Between a Squatter and a Tenant
It is never a good situation when you return to a property you have not been to in awhile, or arrive at your newly purchased property, and find that there is somebody you don’t know living there. If you legally own the property you may be tempted to use any and all means, including physical force, to remove this person or group of people from the premises. This is unwise however, and could end with you being the one in legal trouble. Before taking any action, it is important to know (1) whether the individual(s) is a squatter, trespasser, or tenant; and (2) what the proper legal procedure is to have them removed.
AM I DEALING WITH A TRESPASSER, SQUATTER, OR TENANT?
You might be inclined to think of a trespasser and a squatter as the same thing, but there is a very important distinction. While both are present without permission, a trespasser in only there for a temporary period of time. In contrast, a squatter has essentially moved into the property, which can be evidenced by acts such as having the utilities turned on in their name and having their mail delivered to the property. It can be a grey area, but the general consensus in Philadelphia is that if somebody has been living at the property for more than two weeks, they are considered a squatter and not a trespasser. A true trespasser can be removed by the sheriff’s office. If the person on your property seems like they are living there, you likely have a squatter on your hands, as opposed to a trespasser.
Next, you need to confirm whether you are in fact dealing with a squatter or a tenant. This is important because there are specific and distinct legal procedures that you must follow for each. A tenant is somebody that has a rental contract or agreement with the owner. This is normally the rental lease, but can also be a more informal or a verbal contract. You are likely also dealing with a tenant in a situation where somebody has remained on the property after their lease has expired. In these instances, you can complete the eviction process in Landlord-Tenant Court, which is typically much quicker and less expensive than the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. However, if there is no landlord-tenant relationship and it is not a case of a holdover tenant, then you are likely dealing with a squatter and will have to complete the ejectment process in the Court of Common Pleas.
HOW TO EJECT A SQUATTER:
Once you have concluded that you are in fact dealing with a squatter (there is no landlord-tenant contract, and the sheriff’s office won’t take action and has told you this is a civil matter), you will need to begin the ejection process in the Court of Common Pleas. Some common situations where squatters can be an issue are: when buying foreclosed properties, when old tenants move out and break back in, when investors have multiple properties they don’t check often, and even when renting out your home or apartment as an AirBnb®. It is best to avoid these situations by checking on any properties that you own frequently, as the ejection process will likely take months or in rare situations, even years.
To begin the ejection process, you must first file an ejectment complaint with the Court of Common Pleas in the appropriate county (Philadelphia county, for properties in Philadelphia). This begins the formal ejection process, and you will follow this through until you receive a judgment in your favor from the court. As long as you are the rightful owner and the squatter cannot show any ownership interest or right of possession, a proper complaint should eventually result in a judgment in your favor. You may have heard of cases of adverse possession, where squatters are able to legally take over land they did not own, but these cases are rare and require twenty-one years (in Pennsylvania) of continuous possession along with a number of other elements. In general, however, if you are unfamiliar with court procedures it is a good idea to enlist a real estate attorney to assist you in your action and ensure that everything runs smoothly.
Even once you have a judgment in your favor, you still should not use any physical force or intimidation to remove the squatter, and instead will need to utilize the sheriff’s office to enforce the judgment by way of a writ. Finally, once you take back possession of your property, you will need to deal with any abandoned personal property in the appropriate way. You likely cannot simply throw the property out or leave it on the sidewalk, and may need to contact the squatter to retrieve it or place it in a storage unit.
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN THE LAW
In 2018, a bill was passed by the city of Philadelphia making squatting criminally illegal. However, at the time of writing this article, the police department is still unsure as to how enforce the new criminal law. Our office may be able to provide guidance on this matter.
Unexpected inhabitants are a significant hassle, and some can take months or even longer to remove. However, if you correctly identify whether you are dealing with a trespasser, squatter, or tenant, and then follow the proper legal procedure, you should succeed in regaining possession of your property. Contact our offices at (215) 717-2200 for advice on dealing with unwelcome occupants or for assistance in filing an ejectment action.