A squatter is an individual that occupies an abandoned or unoccupied area of land or a building that he or she does not own, rent or otherwise have a legal possessory interest in. Someone can become a squatter by breaking into an abandoned home and simply staying there. In other cases, a home may fall into foreclosure and become owned by the bank, but the original homeowners will continue to illegally reside in the home as squatters. The owner or landlord do not receive money or rent for the occupation and generally discover the squatters by surprise.
There are significant legal consequences to ignoring squatters for a long period of time. Upon entry, the squatter has only committed trespassing and the burden is on the landlord to inform these interlopers that they must leave the premises. Left unchecked, a squatter could eventually acquire legal ownership of the property through Michigan's common law doctrine of adverse possession.
"To establish adverse possession, the party claiming it must show clear and cogent proof of possession that is actual, visible, open, notorious, exclusive, continuous and uninterrupted for the statutory period of 15 years, hostile and under cover of claim of right. After the statutory period ends, the record owner's title is extinguished and the adverse possessor acquires 'legal title to the property... However, the title acquired by adverse possession is neither record title nor marketable title until the adverse possessor files a lawsuit and obtains a judicial decree." Beach v Lima Township, 489 Mich 99, 106-107; 802 NW2d 1 (2011).
Under traditional Michigan law, landlords and landowners had to resort to using legal eviction proceedings to remove squatters from the property. Despite the unauthorized occupation, the property owner can run afoul of the "anti-lockout law" (MCL 600.2918) and be liable for money damages to the squatters for using self-help to evict them in an illegal or forcible matter. Michigan law still required that these squatters were treated with all the dignity entitled to residential tenants regardless of the wrongful occupation. This created a frustrating, expensive and time-consuming process.
The Michigan Legislature passed new legislation that amended traditional law and severely curtailed these so-called "squatter's rights". Effective September 24th, 2014, the following changes were made to the law:
- Squatters No Longer Protected By Anti-Lockout Law - MCL 600.2918(5) provides "[a]n owner's actions do not unlawfully interfere with an occupant's possession of premises if the occupant took possession by means of a forcible entry, holds possession by force, or came into possession by trespass without color of title or other possessory interest." There is no longer any civil liability for the landowner to change the locks and remove the squatter's possessions.
- Landowners Can Enter Onto Premises Held By Squatters Without Legal Proceedings - MCL 600.5711(1) and (2) provide that a person only make entry into or upon remises as permitted by law and, if so permitted, can only do so in a peaceable manner. However, MCL 600.5711(3) states "[i]f the occupant took possession of the premises by means of a forcible entry, holds possession of the premises by force, or came into possession of the premises by trespass without color of title or other possessory interest, the owner, lessor, or licensor or an agent thereof may enter the premises" and is NOT required to do so in a peaceable manner. The landowner's forcible entry cannot be accomplished by assaultive conduct.
- Unlawful Occupation Now A Criminal Offense - MCL 750.533 was enacted to penalize squatting as follows:
- "An individual who occupies a building that is a single-family dwelling or 1 or both units in a building that is a 2-family dwelling and has not, at any time during that period of occupancy, occupied the property with the owner's consent for an agreed-upon consideration is guilty of a crime". MCL 750.533(1).
- "For a first offense, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000.00 per dwelling unit occupied or imprisonment for not more than 180 days, or both." MCL 750.533(1)(a).
- "For a second or subsequent offense, a felony punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000.00 per dwelling unit occupied or imprisonment for not more than 2 years, or both." MCL 750.533(1)(b).
- This criminal statute DOES "not apply to a guest or a family member of the owner of the dwelling or of a tenant." MCL 750.533(2). For example, a tenant does not become a squatter just because they remain in possession of the property when the lease expires. Holdover tenants or tenants by sufferance must still be removed through the lawful eviction process.
Whether someone is legally classified as a "squatter" under Michigan law depends on the facts and the circumstances. If you have questions about squatter's rights, do not hesitate to contact the property attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC.