Knowing your rights with squatters

Written by in Real Estate on November 21, 2016

Squatting is funny business. The whole idea of someone having any kind of rights to your property is kind of absurd.

But, the kind of damage and financial loss that squatters can inflict on you is certainly anything but humorous.

Common sense would tell you that someone living in your property without your permission or knowledge is doing so illegally – but amazingly, it’s not a criminal offence to squat in an empty house.

So if you get a call one day from a neighbour telling you that there is someone living a covert existence in your untenanted property, what can you do?

How do squatters get away with a free ride?

While squatting isn’t technically illegal, it is considered trespassing and squatters don’t have any actual grounds to stay there.

Unless, of course, they’ve been there for at least 12 years, in which case the title can legally be handed to them. Pretty wild laws, Australia!

But, let’s assume you get wise to your squatter within a decade or so.

As the owner, it’s up to you to decide how much grace you want to give them. You might choose to give a 24-hour period for them to find a new place. Of course, if they’re damaging your property you probably want them out pretty quickly.

We’ve heard of cases where owners have moved some of their own possessions into the house while the squatters were absent, and then they claim break and enter charges when the squatter returns, since the house was then technically ‘lived in’ by someone else.

If this doesn’t sit well with you, you can try to get them out yourself by communicating with them peaceably, or you can contact the police to back you up or take care of it. Involving the authorities generally the best course of action, given that sometimes squatters really don’t want to leave their new nest.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you might have seen the reports that a host of homeless folk moved into unoccupied housing in Collingwood that had been bought out by the government for the abandoned East West Link project. These squatters were ‘reluctant’ to leave under police direction, even forcibly.

So what then? Well, you can see a solicitor, and apply to the Supreme Court to have the squatters removed by law. This is lengthy and frustrating, but ultimately you’ll have your property back again.

How to squatter-proof your property

In the meantime, there are some defence strategies you can use to make sure your properties aren’t an easy target for unwelcome visitors.

  • Install deadlocks on doors and windows
  • Fit good-quality safety screens on windows and sliding doors
  • Install an alarm system
  • Keep the property looking neat, so it doesn’t give an empty vibe
  • Check on it frequently (or have your property manager check, if it’s located interstate)

To protect yourself against financial blows from squatter activities, confirm you’ve got insurance in place that protects you from damage caused by ‘unknown persons’ and not just tenants.

And it has to be said: making sure you buy in an area where rentals are in high demand means your property is more likely to be inhabited by the paying kind of tenants, rather than the alternatives.