Rents keep going up and houses are expensive (and so-called “starter homes” are no longer being built), leaving many people feeling a little desperate. One of the strangest aspects of the current housing crisis is the fact that there are about 16 million vacant homes across the country—houses and apartments with no one living in them.

If you have one such house in your neighborhood, you might be forgiven for wondering why you can just live there. And the weird thing is, maybe you can—via the legal mechanism known as adverse possession, aka squatter’s rights. To be clear, this isn’t what’s known as “phrogging,” where people secretly live in people’s homes for a short period of time, or the situation in the film Parasite where a man lived secretly in someone’s house for years and years. Squatting means living in a house illegally, without permission, and long enough to claim ownership of it.

It might not seem legitimate, but under certain circumstances, you actually can take possession of a property simply by living in it—in fact, this just happened to a man in Delaware who discovered a woman had been using a piece of his property for decades. Here’s what you need to know about squatter’s rights.

From illegal to legal

First, let’s be clear: Squatting isn’t as easy as breaking into someone’s house and shouting “ADVERSE POSSESSION!” like Michael Scott declaring bankruptcy. And it’s legally murky ground because all squatting begins as trespassing. You’ve entered someone’s property without their permission, and you’re using it without their permission. If they notice you’re doing it, they can—and likely will—have you removed.

When things begin to get legally complicated is when you continue to use the property for an extended period of time without being challenged. If you’re squatting with the idea of claiming adverse possession (or at least remaining in the property after the owner has objected), there are six basic legal requirements to make any sort of adverse possession claim:

  • Actual possession. You must have literal, physical control of the property—basically, you have to be actually living there. This isn’t something you can do over the Internet.
  • Open possession. You have to be pretty blatant about it. This is why phrogging doesn’t count—if you make efforts to conceal your occupancy, you can’t claim adverse possession.
  • Hostile possession. You can’t have any sort of permission from the owner to be there. If you’re there with what could be construed as consent, the owner is still exercising their control of the property.
  • Continuous possession. You have to be living in the property for a continuous, unbroken period.
  • Exclusive possession. You can’t be sharing possession of the property with someone else—if there are other squatters, you can’t claim adverse possession. Essentially, you have to be treating the property as if it was your private property.
  • Length of possession. Laws vary from state to state, but you have to have actual, open, exclusive, continuous, and hostile possession of the property long enough to satisfy the local requirements. It’s important to know that some states have long requirements in terms of length of possession—in New Jersey, for example, you must occupy the property for thirty years (while satisfying the other requirements) before you can make an adverse possession claim. On the other hand, in California, it’s just five years.

If you find an empty house or apartment, move in by yourself without permission, make your occupancy obvious, and manage to live openly there for several years, then depending on your state, you might have a legal claim to the property.

Defeating squatting

However, it should be noted that it’s easy for a property owner to frustrate any attempt at squatting. The various ways your scheme can (and will) go sideways include:

  • Signage. In some states, merely putting up signs that alert people that this is private property or that trespassing is not allowed is sufficient to defeat any claim of adverse possession.
  • Having law enforcement remove you. If your presence is noticed before you’ve established the proper length of possession, the owner can simply call the police and file a trespassing report or send you a notice to vacate if they claim you’re damaging the property or doing something illegal. These notices typically give a specific time period (usually a few days) for you to leave before the authorities are brought in.
  • Eviction. If a simple notice to vacate doesn’t apply, the property owner can (and likely will) begin eviction proceedings against you. This is a lengthier and more complex process involving court hearings, but it most likely ends with you being forcibly removed unless you can demonstrate adverse possession.
  • Physical barring. If you leave the property at any time, the owner might simply change the locks and/or re-establish their own possession by moving in themselves or leasing the place legally to someone else.
  • Written permission. This might sound counterintuitive, but if the owner of a property suspects you might be attempting an adverse possession claim, they can actually give you permission to live in the property as a tenant. While this might allow you to live there for a while, this removes the “hostile” portion of the claim, and re-asserts their ownership and control of the property. Plus, they can also try imposing rent on you—and possibly sue you for it.

And, of course, the owner of the property could also try to negotiate your exit peacefully, perhaps by paying you to leave.

Taking over a property by squatting there and claiming adverse possession can actually work—but it takes a lot of time, patience, and resolve. On the other hand, even if you don’t wind up owning the place you might manage to get a few weeks or months of rent-free living out of it. Assuming, of course, you’re willing to risk arrest and potential punishment.

#Squatters #Rights

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