What all property owners should know about squatter’s rights
A person who occupies land belonging to someone else without permission (that is, without a formal licence, lease or without verbal consent) is known as a squatter. If certain conditions are met, a squatter can actually become the lawful owner of land. If you’re a property owner, particularly if you own lots of land or if it’s not your usual place of residence, it would be wise to know what rights squatters have and how you can keep ownership of your land.
Ownership through adverse possession
A squatter can become the lawful owner of land through adverse possession. To be in adverse possession, a squatter must be:
- In physical possession of the land (i.e. living on the property); and
- Able to show that he or she has the intention to possess the land, excluding all others (i.e. they want the land and don’t want others to have it, including the true owner).
These are not the only two conditions that must be met; there are time limits that apply and different processes that you, as the true owner, must take to prevent squatters from taking over your land.
Actions owners must take
If you’re an owner wanting to protect your land from squatters taking over, you should be aware of the processes you must follow, which will be different depending on whether your land is registered or unregistered.
If there have been no property transactions (i.e. a house purchase, a new mortgage, or a long lease) after 1990, and your property wasn’t voluntarily registered before this date, it may be the case that your land is not registered. To find out, you can order an official copy of the register from HM Land Registry here.
As the owner of unregistered land, you have 12 years from when the squatter first occupied the land to start court proceedings to evict them. If you fail to do this within the time period, the squatter has the right to acquire a new title and apply to HM Land Registry for voluntary first registration of it. Different time limits apply if the land is owned by the Crown, a charity, a trust, or a person under a disability, but these won’t be discussed here.
Your land will be registered if it’s listed with Her Majesty’s (HM) Land Registry. If you’ve made a property transaction (i.e. a house purchase, a new mortgage, or a long lease) since compulsory registration was introduced across the whole of England and Wales in 1990, it would have triggered the registration process. The concept of compulsory registration was first introduced in 1897, so the property title may have been voluntarily registered before this enforceable date. Once registered, it cannot be unregistered.
The Land Registration Act 2002 made significant changes to adverse possession of registered land, making it more difficult for a person to acquire title of registered land by adverse possession. Now, unless a squatter’s rights over registered land have fully accrued before 13 October 2003 (i.e. 12 years of uninterrupted possession), they do not continue to accrue.
If a squatter’s rights over registered land have not fully accrued before 13 October 2003, they do still have protections and can apply to be registered as the owner under different rules. Those different rules are that they can rely on 10 years of adverse possession of registered land, counting from the date they occupied the land to the date they made the application to HM Land Registry. The land does not have to have been registered land for the whole 10-year period.
As with unregistered land, as the rightful owner, you have 12 years from when the squatter first occupied the land to start court proceedings to evict them.
What happens when a squatter applies for the land title
Notice to owners
When HM Land Registry receives an application for the land title (which is relying on the conditions set out in the Land Registration Act 2002), they will send a notice to the existing registered owner and to other relevant parties, such as the mortgage lender (if there is one). Notified parties can then either, within a time limit:
- Consent to the application; or
- Object to the application; or
- Serve a counter-notice; or
- Object to the application and serve a counter-notice.
Owners may, for example, want to object to the application because they don’t believe the squatter has been in adverse possession for 10 years. If an objection is received, it will need to be properly considered and both parties will need to come to an agreement or the matter can be referred to the First Tier Tribunal.
If you, as the owner, or other notified parties don’t respond to the application within the time limit, the squatter will become the registered owner.
It is a timely reminder of how crucial it is that your address and contact details are kept up-to-date; you’ll no doubt not want to miss an important notice from HM Land Registry about a squatter’s claim.
If the squatter is successful
If a squatter is successful in their application to HM Land Registry for the land title, they will be subject to any subsisting burdens and rights on that land, such as:
- Restrictive covenants
- Rights of way
- Drainage conditions
- Any conditions set out on the registered title documents before the start of their adverse possession
They won’t, however, have to pay for any existing mortgages on the registered land – unless, of course, they take out a loan after they assume ownership.
Beware mistaken boundary lines or miscommunications
It might not just be squatters that will try to claim the title of land. If you’re not fully aware of your boundary lines or you have neighbours who regularly use your property, this is also something to be mindful of.
HM Land Registry will reject an application for the land title unless the applicant can prove one of three conditions set out in the Land Registration Act 2002:
- The owner of the land acted in a way that led the applicant to believe the land was theirs and, and as a result, they spent money building on it or altering it in some way; or
- There is ‘some other reason why he should be registered as owner’ (e.g. they actually purchased the land, but the right paperwork wasn’t completed); or
- There has been a ‘reasonable mistake as to the boundary’ (to be successful, the applicant has to show they reasonably believed the land belonged to them and that they’ve owned adjacent land for the last 10 years. To rely on this ground, the land being claimed must have been registered for more than one year before an application is made.
If an applicant meets one of the above three conditions and is successful in their application for the land title, they will also be subject to any mortgage affecting the land. That said, the new title holder does have the right to have the mortgage apportioned (rather than being subject to the full mortgage over the total land area).
Essential checks before buying property
Knowing your land rights are not only important if you are the owner of a property, but they are also essential to know if you’re looking to buy – particularly if you’re buying a large property or if you’re buying a property that hasn’t been occupied for a long time.
If you’re looking to buy unregistered land, firstly be mindful that you must register this with HM Land Registry, and secondly check for any obvious signs of a squatter. Fortunately, thanks to an updated Land Registration Act 2002, anyone who now buys unregistered land will only be impacted by an existing squatter’s rights if the buyer knows about them (the squatter may no longer be there but could still have the right to claim) or if the squatter is in actual occupation of the land.
If you do have unregistered land, it would be wise to voluntarily register this with HM Land Registry so you are afforded the additional protections under the Land Registration Act 2002.
If you’re buying land, you’ll be subject to the squatter’s rights if the squatter is in actual occupation of the land except where:
- You don’t actually know about the squatter’s occupation; and
- The occupation is not obvious from a reasonably careful inspection of the land at the time of the purchase.
Moreover, you will not be bound by a squatter’s rights if the squatter failed to reasonably reveal the rights to a purchaser when asked.
Expert property law advice
Whether you’re an existing owner or you’re looking to buy, there’s lots to consider in terms of your land rights. For any conveyancing, land registration, disputes or queries, call our property solicitors today on 08082747557.
 Limitation Act 1980, section 17.
 HM Land Registry, ‘Registering land for more than 150 years’ (30 May 2019) https://hmlandregistry.blog.gov.uk/2019/05/30/registering-land-for-more-than-150-years/
 Land Registration Act 2002, schedule 12, paragraph 18(1).
 Land Registration Act 2002, schedule 6, paragraph 5.
 Land Registration Act 2002, section 11(4)(c).
 Land Registration Act 2002, schedule 1, paragraph 2.
 Land Registration Act 2002, schedule 3, para 2.