Beware: squatters not as easy to get rid of as you would think

By Dave Hunnicut
Oregon Property Owners Associatio

I received an email last week from a property owner with a question about squatters and a link to a recent article about the growing nationwide problem with squatters. Squatters are people who move into homes without invitation from the property owner and refuse to leave when discovered.

The email question was how are squatters treated under Oregon law? The short answer is getting rid of a squatter isn’t as easy as it should be.

A squatter is a trespasser. 

Trespassing is a crime under Oregon law. If you combine Oregon law with common sense, you’d think it would be easy to get rid of a squatter. If you discover a squatter on your property, just call the local police and they’ll get rid of the trespasser. Right? Well maybe.

There is no requirement that police intervene and enforce trespassing law, and if the situation isn’t clear, the squatters don’t appear to be dangerous and are claiming that they have the right to be on the property, it can very easily become a “civil matter,” meaning the police are going to ask the property owner to take care of the problem. So, what does the property owner do?

To be clear – a squatter is not a tenant.

In order to be considered a “tenant” under Oregon law, there has to be a “rental agreement” between the landlord and the person claiming to be the tenant. If a trespasser takes control of a home on your property without your permission (oral or written), they are not a “tenant,” and they are not entitled to protection under Oregon residential tenant law.

The fact that the squatter is not a “tenant” is both good and bad. The good news is that Oregon law makes it really difficult to evict “tenants”, which is one of the reasons that there is a shortage of rental units in most communities. Why become a landlord in Oregon when the state makes it really hard on you?

The bad news is that the legislature has an expedited legal process for resolving landlord/tenant disputes that is only available to those parties. The lawsuit is known as a “forcible entry and detainer” action (FED), and it’s used by both landlords and tenants to resolve disputes between them. The legislature has created a greatly expedited process for FED lawsuits to make sure property disputes are resolved quickly.

Unfortunately, the only way a property owner can use a FED lawsuit against a squatter is if the squatter made “forcible entry” onto the property. What does that mean?

There isn’t a definition of “forcible entry” in Oregon law, and there is very little guidance from Oregon courts on what it means for a squatter to enter property by force. What guidance exists suggests that for a squatter to make a forcible entry onto property, there must be some kind of illegal activity. For example, a break-in of the home, a physical threat to the property owner, or something of that nature.

If the squatter has made a “forcible entry” onto property in Oregon, the property owner can use a FED lawsuit to remove them from the property. But if the squatter fights the lawsuit, the property owner will be required to prove the facts that created the “forcible entry”.

Oregon law allows for “ejectment” of squatters. 

So what happens if the squatter refuses to leave and there’s no “forcible entry”? The property owner can’t use the FED and has to use a different lawsuit. The typical claim is a claim for “ejectment” of the squatter.

There’s nothing wrong with an ejectment action, but there’s no expedited court process for ejectment actions, and if the squatter wants to fight, it can take a very long time before the court finally gets to the case and makes a decision. The property owner can recover damages from the squatter, but a typical squatter doesn’t have any money anyway – if they did, they wouldn’t be a squatter. So the damage award is a hollow victory.

So what does a property owner do when they find that their home has been taken over by a squatter? The best hope is that the police can get the squatter to leave. Problem solved. If that doesn’t work, the property owner has to consider their options. They can file a lawsuit (either an FED or ejectment action) – if the squatter doesn’t fight, the property owner can get a judgment in a couple of months. A lawsuit can be expensive, however.

There’s also self-help… 

Since the squatter is a trespasser and has no legal right to the property (assuming the property owner hasn’t made them a tenant, which would be a really bad idea) there is nothing that prevents you from retaking your property when the squatter leaves. In other words, if the property owner temporarily vacates the property, you can reoccupy it. If the squatter comes back, call the police and demand that they remove the squatter. After all, it’s your property. At that point, the police should intervene and make the squatter leave.

The danger to self-help is obvious. A squatter is very likely not a functioning member of society, and by definition is a criminal. Self-help is dangerous and risky.

The last option is to attempt to make a deal with the squatter. Negotiate, get them to leave the property once and for all, and then immediately make repairs and change locks to secure the home. In some cases, that may be the cheapest solution.

OPOA is considering legislation during the upcoming 2025 session to make it easier for property owners to get rid of squatters. If you’re interested in this issue, let us know, and we’ll keep you updated on our efforts.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not represent the opinions or positions of any party represented by the OPOA Legal Center on any particular matter.