Squatters' Rights and Adverse Possession

Waterfront land and Adverse Possession.
Know the special rules and considerations of selling waterfront real estate. (c) Photo: sxc.hu

 Let's start with a fictional situation relating to land ownership rights, but landowners in many states have experienced similar situations over the years.

You buy a 50 acre wooded unimproved parcel of land as an investment.  You also think that you may convert it into a retirement or vacation home property sometime in the future, but that's years away.  It isn't in your state, and you go years without visiting the property.

 You ask locals to check it now and then, but you don't really follow up.

Seven years later you get an official document in the mail telling you that someone is taking possession of your land.  You call an attorney, and after some research you find that you can do nothing about it, as in that state a squatter can take an Adverse Possession action after seven years.  You just lost your investment and your retirement home.

No, it doesn't happen often, but adverse possession in some form or other with different time limits is on the books in almost every state.  A squatter is someone who moves onto your property and takes up residence without your knowledge or approval.  if they stay long enough without discovery and removal, you could end up in this situation.

What they need to do:

In most states, and these vary in language, there are five basic requirements a squatter must satisfy in order to successfully use adverse possession.

  1. They must take actual exclusive possession of the land.  It can be residential or for a business, but they must take over the use of the land.
  2. The use of the land must be open and obvious, meaning they can be seen using the property, not hiding in a grove of trees at one corner.
  3. They can't share the use of the land with anyone else, in other words exclusive possession and use.
  1. They can't be there with the owner's permission in any way.  The owner would have no knowledge of their use of the land and would oppose it if known.
  2. Their possession of the property must be continuous for the statutory period.  In our example, this means that they used and occupied the property every day throughout the seven year period.

As regards the continuous use requirement, owners who check their land regularly and discover a squatter can put a kink in their plans.  If you inspect your property and find squatters, check with the local authorities and an attorney about your rights and take the action required to evict them from the property.  Even if they return again, the statutory time period starts over again.

This is important stuff because the squatter can take your land and title away from you.  And, they do not have to compensate you in any way.  You simply lose your property.  If you can't or do not want to visit the property at least annually, pay someone to go out and take a lot of photos with a GPS camera every year and submit you a written report that nobody was found on the property.  This could be a real estate agent, appraiser, surveyor, or just about anyone willing to do it.

If you think about this, there is plenty of motivation for some people to do this to you.  Perhaps you own a lot of land, maybe 100 acres or more, and it's pretty remote.  You don't watch it, and someone finds that out.  They drive an old bus out, live in it, put in an outhouse, and maybe even some solar power.  They have free rent, and their goal is to someday own your land.  Guard your interests.