Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Squatting

Full Definition of Squatting

Squatting is the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied space or building, usually residential, that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have permission to use. Squatting is significantly more common in urban areas than in rural areas, especially when urban decay occurs. According to author Robert Neuwirth, there are one billion squatters globally, that is to say about one in every seven people on the planet.


In many of the world’s poorer countries, there are extensive slums or shantytowns, typically built on the edges of major cities and consisting almost entirely of self-constructed housing built without the landowner’s permission. While these settlements may in time grow to become both legalised and indistinguishable from normal residential neighbourhoods, they start off as squats with minimal basic infrastructure. Thus, there is no sewage system, drinking water must be bought from vendors or carried from a nearby tap and if there is electricity, it is stolen from a passing cable.

To squat in many countries is in itself a crime; in others, it is only seen as a civil conflict between the owner and the occupants. Property law and the state have traditionally favoured the property owner. However, in many cases where squatters had de facto ownership, laws have been changed to legitimize their status. Squatters often claim rights over the spaces they have squatted by virtue of occupation, rather than ownership; in this sense, squatting is similar to (and potentially a necessary condition of) adverse possession, by which a possessor of real property without title may eventually gain legal title to the real property.

Anarchist Colin Ward comments: “Squatting is the oldest mode of tenure in the world, and we are all descended from squatters. This is as true of the Queen of the United Kingdom] with her as it is of the 54 per cent of householders in Britain who are owner-occupiers. They are all the ultimate recipients of stolen land, for to regard our planet as a commodity offends every conceivable principle of natural rights.”

Besides being residences, some squats are used as social centres or host give-away shops, pirate radio stations and cafés. In Spanish-speaking countries, squatters receive several names, like okupas in Spain or Argentina (from the verb ocupar meaning “to occupy”), or paracaidistas in Mexico (meaning “paratroopers”, because they “parachute” themselves at unoccupied land).

United States of America

In the United States, squatting laws vary from state to state and city to city. For the most part, it is rarely tolerated to any degree for long, particularly in cities. Laws based on a contract ownership interpretation of property make it easy for deed holders to evict squatters under loitering or trespassing laws. The situation is more complicated for legal residents who fail to make rent or mortgage payments, but the result is largely the same.

Most squatting in the US is dependent on law enforcement and the person legally considered to be owner of the property being unaware of the occupants. Often the most important factors in the longevity of squats in the US are apathy of the owner and the likeliness of neighbours to call the police. This was not always the case, particularly in the era of Westward expansion, wherein the Federal government specifically recognized the rights of squatters. For example, see the Preemption Act of 1841.

The United States Homestead Act legally recognized the concept of homesteading and distinguished it from squatting since it gave homesteaders permission to occupy unclaimed lands. Additionally, US states which have a shortage of housing tend to tolerate squatters in property awaiting redevelopment until the developer is ready to begin work; however, at that point, the laws tend to be enforced.

Squats used for living in can be divided into two types (although they are not absolutes): So-called “back window squats” (the most common type, in which occupants sneak in and out of the building with the intent of hiding that they live there), and “front door squats” (where the occupants make little or no effort to conceal their comings and goings). Many squats may start out as one or the other and then change over time. Frequently squatters will move in and then later assess how open they can be about their activities before they approach the neighbours; others will not move into a place until they have first met and discussed the idea with the neighbours. The difference between the two types can be signs of vast differences in philosophies of squatting and its purpose, how long the occupants plan to be around, and on the atmosphere of the neighbourhood, among many other factors.

Squatters can be young people living in punk houses or low-income or homeless people, as observed in Philadelphia. A group called Homes Not Jails advocates squatting houses to end the problem of homelessness. It has opened “about 500 houses, 95% of which have lasted six months or less. In a few cases, these squats have lasted for two, three or even six years.”

In common law, through the legally recognized concept of adverse possession, a squatter can become a bona fide owner of property without compensation to the owner.

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Definition Sources

Definitions for Squatting are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 1st May, 2020 | 26 Views.