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The Big Move: Our late son rented out a house we own without our knowledge. After his funeral, the tenant refused to leave and is squatting on our property. What should we do?

Dear MarketWatch,

Our son was living in a house we own in Avenal, Calif. Unbeknownst to us, he was renting a room to a person. 

Our son died on Feb. 28. When we found out this person was in the house, our daughter-in-law told her to leave and she refused, so our daughter-in-law shut the water off and told the city to not let anyone turn it on.

The woman tried three times to turn on water in her name, but the city refused. Our daughter-in-law turned the electricity off, but since there is no local office, we’re unable to tell them to refuse anyone turning it on.

After my son’s funeral, my husband told her to leave. She refused, saying she is disabled and we would never be able to evict her.

Our son never owned the property, and we never rented to her. How do we get this squatter out of our property so we can sell it?


Stuck with a Squatter

The Big Move is a MarketWatch column looking at the ins and outs of real estate, from navigating the search for a new home to applying for a mortgage.

Do you have a question about buying or selling a home? Do you want to know where your next move should be? Email Aarthi Swaminathan at

Dear Stuck,

I’m sorry for your loss. I’m also sorry you are dealing with such a messy situation after your son’s passing. 

I don’t have good news for you. California is a state with strong tenant protections, so this squatter will be a hard one to shake off. You need to hire an attorney to help you see what can work.

“It’s a terrible time in the history of landlord-tenant relations because of the COVID pandemic. And it’s been brutal for many, many housing providers,” Daniel Bornstein, a San Francisco-based real-estate attorney who represents property owners in landlord-tenant issues, told MarketWatch.

Since the pandemic-era eviction moratorium was lifted, he said, he’s been getting a “tidal wave” of more cases. “There is pent-up demand,” Bornstein said. Some clients send over 25 cases in which eviction notices need to be sent.

Before the pandemic, landlords generally cited not having been paid three months’ rent. Now they’re trying to collect on unpaid rent over two years.

But the issue in your case is that there is a history of this person renting the home, so they may not legally be a squatter. Bornstein said your “squatter” may in fact be a “subtenant.” 

Plus, you’ve done something that may land you in some legal trouble: turning off utilities. “Any type of behavior like that is deemed a self-help eviction and can get you sued severely for your misconduct,” Borstein said. “You have to go to court to remove someone.” 

“So while I’m empathetic with the family’s situation, the approach they’re taking is totally inconsistent with the law,” he said.

The best option you have right now is to approach an attorney to start the eviction process. Please hire a lawyer to make sure you don’t make any mistakes, as this person seems to be well-versed in the law and her rights as a “squatter” or a “tenant.”

This lawyer may advise you to serve an eviction notice, where the person gets a few days to move out. If they ignore it, you can move to court and file an “unlawful detainer” suit. Then she is served with a summons, where she can respond to the lawsuit. 

That may go either way, given that she has rented from your son before and there is evidence of a pre-existing arrangement through her rental history. Your lawyer will investigate the history of the person’s presence there, whether your son had a lease, the rental history, etc. 

If she has no legal right to the property, then the court will give you a default judgment, and you can request a notice from the court served to the squatter to vacate the premises. She will then have to move out.

You have a long road ahead if you want to clear the property and sell it. Again, you need to tread carefully with this person.

“You don’t summarily have the right to just change the locks or freeze them out by shutting off utilities,” Bornstein said. “The behavior that I’ve read is likely to result in liability, so I would strongly caution them against any of these self-help measures, but instead, do the right thing. Contact an attorney.”

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