Squatters’ takeover of Torrance home illustrates landlord frustrations with state law

In California, squatters can claim legal title to someone else’s property through an arcane legal procedure known as “adverse possession.”

The law, enacted in 1872, originally was meant for abandoned rural properties that had gone fallow. In modern times, it’s mostly cited when there is a dispute over property lines. However, squatters can use it to gain possession of an empty home or vacant parcel by paying property taxes on time for five years and making improvements to the property.

Most squatters, however, give up or are exposed before completing the adverse possession process, said Jason Burris, a Santa Ana real estate attorney. “It’s so hard to get to that finish line and do it the right way,” he added.

Opportunistic squatters often scour public records for foreclosures and other signs that a property is distressed. “They check to see if people have passed away and didn’t pay their property taxes,” Burris added. “That’s when they strike.”

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