Are You and a Neighbor Arguing Over Who Owns What? This Is What You Should Know about Adverse Possession

Property ownership is often seen as the key to wealth—which is why ownership disputes between neighbors can quickly become contentious. What happens if you've been using a piece of property for years without disturbance when a neighbor suddenly tells you that you're on the wrong side of a boundary line? This is what you should know.

You may have gained the right to the property through adverse possession.

Adverse possession is sometimes known as "squatter's rights," and it's a legal way of gaining ownership of a piece of property over a period time. In order to acquire ownership this way, you have to meet certain conditions:

  • Your possession has to be hostile (without the consent of the true owner).
  • You have to actually control the property in some way.
  • You have to use the property openly.
  • Your possession has to continue for a specific period of time, as prescribed by law, without interruption.

The exact length of time that you have to possess a piece of property this way in order for it to change hands varies widely by state. In Pennsylvania, for example, you have to wait 21 years for adverse possession to take effect. In Rhode Island, however, you can gain ownership in as few as 10 years.

There may be some additional requirements specific to your state.

In addition to the basic requirements, some states have additional rules that control ownership through adverse possession. For example, in Oregon, adverse possession can result in a change of ownership if you honestly and reasonably believed that you were the actual owner of the property.

For example, imagine that you wanted to build a shed in your backyard. You and your neighbor have always believed that a line of bushes marked the boundary between your properties. You build the shed and don't think anything more of it until your neighbor sells his or her property twenty years later. Your new neighbor, however, has the property surveyed and informs you that your shed is three feet over the boundary line. The odds are high that a court would not force you to move the shed after all that time.

In other states, you can gain adverse possession only if you meet all of the regular criteria plus pay the taxes. In states with this rule, the time limit required to obtain possession is often shortened. California, for example, will allow you to claim adverse possession under those circumstances in only 5 years.

Adverse possession claims can involve a few inches or they can involve large patches of land and houses. If you find yourself in that situation, contact a real estate attorney today. To get legal help with adverse possession issues, go to websites like this one and contact a real estate attorney.