Claiming Adverse Possession Is Not Going To Get You A Mansion For Pennies

Many of you are already aware of the Texas man who bragged he had taken possession of an abandoned $300,000 home for $16, only to be given the boot by Bank of America. This man is part of a growing trend of people across the country trying to use “adverse possession” laws to scoop up homes left vacant.

Many states have such laws on the books that allow for people to take possession of an abandoned property by living there openly for a prescribed, often extensive, period of time, all while continuing to pay property taxes, maintaining the property and possibly making improvements.

While it all sounds like a nice way to score a house without having to pay a mortgage, the requirements for claiming adverse possession vary from state to state and often require those who have taken over the property to reside there openly for many years.

For example, here in Pennsylvania it would take 21 years for an occupier of a vacant home to claim ownership. In California, it can be as little as five years if the person occupying the property continues to pay all the property taxes.

However, most states also allot several years for the actual owner’s of the property to evict you and assert their possession of the home. So you may be able to crash in an empty house for the weeks, months or even years it can take for a bank to prove it owns the property, but the odds of you being able to eventually claim that property as yours are not in your favor.

Denver’s CBS 4 has found at least a dozen people in the area who are trying to move into empty homes and claim adverse possession. However, banks and authorities are not having it, and one man was arrested yesterday for moving his family into a $1 million home that was actually set to be sold at auction.

Here’s a quick way to look up the adverse possession requirements in your state.

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  1. DariusC says:

    The problem is if someone catches you residing in an abandoned home, they can all the police on you for trespassing on someone else’s property (someone owns everything, if nobody does the default becomes the government). I have a feeling if someone attempted this, they would probably get arrested if they got caught.

    • Marlin says:

      Dep[ends if you filed the correct paperwork. the reason the guy in Texas did not get arrested was he went and filed the proper paperwork so when the policecame he was legal since there was no court order to tose him.

      The reason the guy above got arrested was he just moved in and did not post it and/or file the proper paperwork.

    • Tangurena says:

      Once you’ve been there for more than a few days, it requires an eviction for the police to throw you out.

  2. Tim says:

    I’m curious – what’s the actual purpose of an adverse possession law? Why do states have them?

    • TuxthePenguin says:

      It was mostly used for agricultural land, but it can also be for situations were a fence was accidentally built, say, a foot on the other property and has been like that for years.

      • shepd says:

        That too, and there’s worse situations. When I was looking at some lower cost houses in my area, I noted two where the property line went through the middle of the house.

        Unfortunately, in Ontario we no longer have adverse possession. I believe those properties are still for sale (when I looked at them they had been on the market for about a year despite being cheap as all get out to buy) and will probably end up eventually being demolished and left permanently vacant.

        With adverse possession, since this property was 50+ years old, a seller could simply request the city to redraw the boundaries based on the fences that have been rotting there since the place was built and it would be done, no questions asked. Neighbours would be told if they don’t like it, though should have done something about it 45 years ago (like AT LEAST requesting the city prosecute).

    • Marlin says:

      A lot of them are old laws on the books back during the days when the states were just open unused land. They were put in so people could move in and claim unused land and build on it. That way the state got more people, more power in congress, and also tax money.

      • RobertWBoyd says:

        I think this is correct. It was, in a sense, an inducement for people to homestead. Often the property would not have been developed. The squatter would have to move in, clear the land, build a cabin, plant crops, etc. Since this is the kind of activity states were encouraging in general, it made a certain amount of sense to have a mechanism for taking fallow, abandoned property and turning it into something productive.

    • shepd says:

      If the ownership records are otherwise lost, the land can be reclaimed for a useful purpose.

      Also, it prevents someone from buying a home without putting it to good use–in other words, it prevents run-down ignored properties.

      • Tim says:

        Well, sort of. Those adversely possessing the property requires you to use it, if you’re the actual title owner, you don’t have to use it. You only have to kick out potential adverse possessors.

        But yes, if you ignore it such that you don’t find an adverse possessor in the statutory time, you do lose it.

    • KyBash says:

      It’s my understanding (as in — I’ve read several things over the years, but can’t cite any particular article or book) that the laws came in at different times in different states.

      A 19th Century problem for some states was that people would homestead, build a house and barn, etc., and get a deed to the property, but then they died without heirs, or the kids had moved to the city, or any number of reasons for the farm to be abandoned. The adverse possession laws were enacted so neighboring farmers could expand a bit without complicated legal filings or making them buy something the original owner didn’t technically buy.

      A problem in the 1930s was that people would lose their jobs, couldn’t sell their house, and just abandoned it so they could hit the road looking for work. Also, a few years into the depression, when a bank closed, no one wanted to buy the mortgages or properties the bank owned because they were effectively worthless. Also, some banks just quit foreclosing on properties because the filing fees cost more than they could get for the houses. It was better for the cities to let people with little money move in, pay some taxes, and take care of a house rather than let it fall into ruin.

      The main thing to remember is that it was done for the convenience of the government — it wasn’t the state’s/city’s property they were giving away, the state/city would get taxes and filing fees, and it cut down on the expense of condemning and eventually tearing down abandoned homes.

  3. Jubes says:

    I’m more curious about the conversation the guy had with his family when he told them they were moving.

  4. Darrone says:

    They may have kicked him out, but he sold some lectures and advice to people before he did. Got enough press that he probably made a little cash off the whole endeavor. And he got a few people arrested with his bad advice.

  5. Costner says:

    In my state I would have to live on the property for 20 years and have paid taxes on it for at least 10 years all without the true owners every complaining.

    The result? No squatters in my state.

    Texas (and a few other states) should take note. Update these obsolete laws to prevent this type of thing and you will save a lot of money in court and law enforcement costs.

    • shepd says:

      Instead, you will end up with a lot more court cases about decades old fences and driveways being a foot or two on the wrong side and who should pay to have them ripped up and put back in the correct place.

      There’s a lot more of that then there are squatters.

      • Costner says:

        Actually in my state those types of disputes rarely happen. Land plat maps have been in place for decades upon decades and don’t change often. The only time a fence becomes an issue is within cities, and I dare say neighbors are quick to point out such disputes within days or weeks rather than decades.

        I’m not saying states should get rid of their laws, but they should update them from one to five years to some longer term such as 10 to 20 years. That would resolve most of these issues because nobody is going to attempt to squat in a house if they know it would take a decade to become “theirs”.

        Scratch that… some people will squat just to avoid having to pay rent, but it would be a lot easier to get these people out if the law clearly required a decade or two of occupancy mixed with a decade or two of tax payment.

  6. captadam says:

    This is what happens when people think they understand the law. It’s like the excuse that “if it’s on the internet, it’s free!,” except with bigger ramifications.

    • Cat says:

      So many “legal experts”, like My ex’s boyfriend:
      “You can’t serve her papers from out of state. You’re not talking to just anyone here, my cousin is an assistant D.A.!”

      What an idiot.

      • Lance Corvette says:

        But yes, yes you can serve papers on someone from out of state. it’s a simple process (get it? process server? get it?) that in fact I have done on many occasions. File your lawsuit here, call the county sheriff over there, ask how much to serve an out of state summons, put the summons and check in an envelope in the mail to the sheriff with a fancy cover letter, and wow man, served someone from out of state. Even a D.A. can get served that way.

        And for an out of state subpoena? Done that too.

    • crashfrog says:

      Here’s the problem, though – if you understand the law to be saying that you can take legal possession of property on which you’re openly residing with the actual owner given only a limited period of time to stop you, you have a correct understanding of the law. Adverse possession law really does exist.

      Nobody from “the bank” is living in these bank-owned homes, yet 500,000 Americans or more live on the street, homeless. And a home has maintenance requirements best met by someone who resides there, so that a burst pipe doesn’t ruin the home because it goes undiscovered for days. Allowing people to live in these homes is a win-win – the premises are secured against theft, someone’s available to keep the utilities on and the maintenance up to date, local housing values don’t decline because of the presence of eyesore abandoned homes. We should be putting people in these homes, not keeping them out.

  7. Coffee says:

    Abandoned homes going into various states of neglect as shiftless drifter walk around or squat where they can, hollow-eyed and despondent. All we need now are some ghouls and bottle caps and we’ve got the beginning of Fallout 4.

  8. Gman says:

    I’m fine with adverse possession if it comes to abandoned or vacant properties. Some place where ownership of the property is in doubt [as in nobody knows who owns it, not even the bank].

    But in the case where there is clear ownership, like a individual, company or bank. Sorry folks but you gotta buy like the rest of us. You should not be able to skirt the rules to live somewhere free of charge. At the very least a “rent” should be required to be paid to the rightful owners of the property [Even if it is a bank]. Until the AP goes through.

  9. bsh0544 says:

    This whole adverse possession as applied to houses seems odd. The requirements generally require you to conspicuously occupy the house for some period of time, but occupying a house you don’t own is trespassing, isn’t it? And breaking and entering may or may not be tossed in for good measure?

    At what point does it cross the line between trespassing and adverse possession, and how? I don’t think a bit of paperwork can bridge that line, if the purpose of an adverse possession law is to allow me to have claim to 6″ of my neighbor’s property that happens to fall inside my fence that I’ve been mowing for 22 years. That’s not really an intentional thing that I’d kick off by filing some paperwork at the town hall, you know?

    • Tunnen says:

      I think it comes down to the fact that adverse possession is to cover abandoned property. If the property has been abandoned, there is no owner to claim you are trespassing. If the property is not abandoned, the owner would be able to toss you off for trespassing. Now in a lot of these stories the home is being foreclosed on by a bank. To have the squatters removed, the owner (bank in most cases) would need to prove they are the owners of the property to have the squatters removed. The problem is the paper trail through the banks has been so disorganized (see all the other stories about robo-signers and other bank documentation failures) that it takes them a while to prove they own the property. Without proof, it’s just their word against that of the squatter, but the squatter is in the house. These people are just hoping that the bank has and will continue to screw up to the point where they aren’t able to provide proof within the duration of the adverse possession grace period. The squatter has also been able to live in the house rent/mortgage free during this period as well, so even if they only got away with it for 1 year, that’s still a hell of a lot of money saved.

      I’m not a lawyer, this is just my understanding of the process from what I’ve read from other stories.

      • RandomHookup says:

        And, even if they prove ownership, they may still have to go through the time-consuming eviction process.

    • 44 in a Row says:

      A lot of times it comes up with simple misunderstandings. Let’s say there’s a subdevelopment of 10 houses, numbered 1 through 10. You buy house #6, pay money, and move in. Twenty years later, the developer realizes that he actually gave you a deed for house #7, and he still has the deed to house #6. The adverse possession doctrine is part of what prevents him from saying, “Hey, I still own house #6, so buy it from me or get out.”

  10. MikeHerbst says:

    As I saw pointed out in another discussion of this:

    The dude lived there for 8 months. He basically paid $2/month in rent.

    While there, he maintained the property and kept it from turning into one of those blighted foreclosed homes affecting so may other neighborhood property values (mine included).

    So, win for him, win for the bank, win for the neighbors?

  11. cynner says:

    It helps if you plant some fake ghosts on the property, like the bad guys did on “Scooby-Doo.” :)

  12. scoosdad says:

    When I put up a chain link fence around my back yard in 1997 for the dogs, I deliberately squared off my yard by putting the fence over a triangular piece of property that belonged to some unknown person who owned the woods behind my house. My lawn already extended onto that section, probably because the first owners of my house decided to plant the grass that far out. When I had the surveyor’s survey done for the fence, I was surprised that I didn’t own the entire lawn. When I bought the house a few years before that, I got a blurry photocopied sketch of the lot that seemed to indicate that I owned that corner.

    In the ensuing years the woods have been surveyed several times for a possible housing development, and my fence even shows up on the development’s plot plan that was filed with the city. But nobody has ever challenged the fence (and no housing has been built there, it keeps getting shot down by the city, thank goodness), so in 2017 I expect to be able to file for adverse posession and enlarge my lot slightly.

    Not sure if I will, but my brother is an attorney so it should be easy enough to do.

    • Anachronism says:

      My understanding is that you may not have to file until somebody challenges you on it. If nobody challenges you until after the time period has expired, as long as you can document that you have used the property as your own for the required amount of time, it is yours.

      • Lance Corvette says:

        Also keep in mind that the only truly accurate survey (to the extent any are accurate) is an ALTA survey which has strict accuracy standards. Cost you lots of money if you really wanted one.

        What you got when you bought the house was a “mortgage inspection” (even though some states allow it to be called a “survey” which basically assures the bank that yes indeed there is a house on the property, and the property is generally shaped as shown in the plat of survey books down at the county. Notoriously inaccurate, but real good for starting fights with neighbors, when you compare yours to theirs.

        What you got to put the fence up was probably something even less accurate than that, just to protect the fence company to make sure you probably sort of own the property.

  13. golddog says:

    It’s not just for houses in Colorado. There was a case a few years back where one neighbor regularly hiked across their neighbor’s property (a decent size lot w/a house). There were no fences or other markers delineating the property line. They hiked across it so much they wore a path in the grass.

    Fast forward a number of years later and the hiker neighbor claimed the land they hiked over was theirs via adverse possession. It held in the lower court; not sure what happened in appeal.

    • RandomHookup says:

      Sounds more like an easement case than adverse possession.

      • golddog says:

        It does, doesn’t it? Especially since everything came to a head when the neighbors started to build a fence to keep the hiking neighbors out. But they used adverse possession to say that they had “squatted” on the land for so long via walking across it, it was theirs.

        I went back and looked it up. The two neighbors ended up settling while it was in the Colorado Court of Appeals. They gave up 540 square feet. The hiker neighbors btw, the husband was a judge in the same district of the judge who heard the original case. It ended up changing Colorado’s adverse possession law a bit, but it’s still on the books.

        • RandomHookup says:

          Guess it depends a lot on state law, but I would rather have someone else own it and pay taxes on it and I’ll just have the right to use it.

    • Lance Corvette says:

      But if it was done with permission it was not “adverse” (see how I did that? “adverse” possession?) and therefore could not be taken with AP laws.

      So all the one owner had to do was say, “sure you can hike across my land” and it’s game over, man!

      Also, the adverse possessor has to claim to have a right to posses the land from the get go, not at the end of the period. The whole story sounds like a shakedown

  14. Anachronism says:

    The purpose of adverse possesion laws are to help ensure clear title to property.

    The issue is that property ownership is established by “chain of title.” Ownership is proved by tracing every title transfer back to when ownership of the land was first formally established. In America, this means that establishing title means tracing back every transaction on a piece of land for upwards of 400 years. In England, where the common-law concept originated, this can mean back tracing thousands of years.

    The problem that adverse possesion seeks to solve are challenges to this chain of title.

    The issue: You buy your house. A few months after you move in, you recieve a lawsuit. The lawsuit states that 200 years ago, the ancestors of the plaintiff had your property fruadulently taken from them. The lawsuit contains iron-clad evidence that this is the case. Despite you, and all the previous “owners” that thought they “owned” the property for years, without the concept of adverse possesion, you are stripped of the property and have no recourse, despite absolutely no wrongdoings on yours, or the wrongdoing of anybody still living.

    Adverse possesion acts as an easy way to quiet title. It is essentially a statute of limitations for property ownership. In a nutshell, it says if you openly act like you are the owner, and have done so for a defined period of time, and nobody in that period of time has objected, then you are the de-facto owner, no matter what took place in the past. The main objective is to protect people that believe they have a legitimate claim to a piece of land. In fact, for many states, to claim adverse possesion, you have to show that you believed you had valid legal claim to title, which rules out 99% of people trying to squat on foreclosed properties.

    The other key component to adverse possession rules are how ridiculously easy it is to forfeit a claim of adverse possession during the time period needed to establish that the “possesor” is now the rightful owner. The key clause is that, if at any point the true owner gives approval for the person to live in the house, the adverse possesion clock starts over. So, if you find out somebody is squatting on a home you own, giving them a letter stating that it is ok for them to occupy the house for the next 2 hours resets the clock. So, if they needed 20 years of occupancy to claim ownership, and you show up 19 years and 11 months into their ownership of the property, and hand them a letter saying you approve of them living there until the next day, they would then have to occupy the property for 20 MORE years from that point to legally claim it.

    So, it is nearly impossible to claim property just by moving in. It is also very possible to get arrested for attempting to do so, because adverse possession laws offer no legal protection for tresspassing.

    It sounds like the $16 home guy went about it in a pretty smart way. He openly declared what he was doing, and made it clear that he would leave the instant a legal property owner told him to. He doesn’t get the house, but he also got someplace to live for many months, and he avoided getting arrested. However, he could have just as easily gotten arrested for B&E, trespassing, etc., if the bank decided to go that route.

    • RandomHookup says:

      I’m curious if eviction laws might enter in while trying to charge someone with trespassing? I know that police hate getting involved in anything that smells of civil case. I could see a squatter claiming the right to be there and the owner saying otherwise, perhaps forcing the owner to go through an eviction(?) which can eat up several months of time for the case to come up.

  15. Jane_Gage says:

    I wish someone would blog or write an article about how to live somewhere for free. Not lame suggestions like homeless shelters, caretaking (which I’m sure has a very low demand/supply ratio), ten roommates, or marrying some jerk. Writing that mortgage or rent check eats up half your income.

  16. newmie says:

    I once got a piece of land next to my property this way. About 50 x120 feet. When I bought the property, I was told it was mine. So I took care of it. When I found out it was not mine, I continued to maintain it for the 15 years required and then legally claimed it.