Someone else might own your land if they use it long enough

A little-known rule of law says that if you use someone else’s land for a long enough period of time, you can actually acquire legal title to it.

This rule is called “adverse possession.” In order to claim adverse possession, a person must use someone else’s property for a period of years. In some states, it’s just a few years, but other states require up to 20 years or more. During that time, the person’s use of the property must meet several criteria:

  • They must demonstrate actual possession by changing the land in some way – building a fence, cutting trees, mowing – as opposed to just walking on it.
  • Their use must be so open that it would be obvious to an observer that they’re using the property as their own.
  • They must act without the owner’s permission, to the exclusion of the owner and in a way that’s contrary to the owner’s interests.
  • They must use the land relatively continuously – as opposed to cutting a few trees once a year, say, and then leaving the property alone at all other times.

In a recent case, a vacant lot on a resort island on Lake Erie was owned by a real estate investment company that became defunct. For years afterward, three families whose property bordered the lot used it as their own. They cleared paths across the lot, used it to access a beach, harvested firewood there, rode bicycles and motorcycles on it, and otherwise treated it as common property.

An Ohio appeals court ruled that as a result, they could claim ownership of the lot.

This rule might seem unfair. However, its original purpose was to prevent disputes over land ownership. The idea was the no one should be allowed to upset everyone’s settled idea of who owns what by suddenly showing up with documents from 100 years ago that nobody knew about.

You can think of adverse possession as a kind of “statute of limitations” on claiming property rights.

The fact that this rule exists means that it’s important to be vigilant about asserting your property interests. Suppose you have a neighbor who builds a fence that encroaches onto your land. Or suppose you own some woods, and a neighboring family or business regularly uses part of the woods as its own. You might not want to make trouble by complaining or suing them for trespassing, but in certain cases, if you don’t act to preserve your rights, you might find that the land your neighbors are using no longer belongs to you.