Squatters' rights is the popular term for adverse possession -- the legal occupation of property belonging to another. Few such claims survive in court.
Squatters' law is the popular term for adverse possession statutes. Every state has them. They differ somewhat from state to state, but many states have similar requirements. A few states have amended these laws to make claiming a house very difficult. For other reasons as well, few adverse possession claims of urban housing are likely to stand up in court.
The statutes all describe the number of years an occupier needs to remain in the house before he can file an adverse possession claim. The low end of the range is five years in a few states, provided that the occupier also pays taxes on the property and/or presents some kind of deed claiming title. The deed need not validate the title, but must meet a lower standard of representing a plausible document that an occupier could reasonably believe to be valid -- such as a quit claim deed that does not establish the beneficiary's title, but only represents that some other party relinquishes a claim.
The upper end of the time requirement range is 30 years in Louisiana. The majority of states have time requirements ranging from 10 to 20 years.
In all states, the occupation must be unopposed during the qualifying time period.
The occupation requirements vary in detail from state to state, but generally require similar conditions. The occupation must be
• Actual: not merely a posted claim, but actual residence in the house.
• Hostile: the occupation cannot be by permission of the owner, but must be an occupation against an owner's interests.
• Continuous: the occupier cannot qualify by occasionally occupying the property. He must live there.
• Open and Notorious: the occupation cannot be furtive, but must be plainly evident to even a casual passerby.
• Exclusive: the occupier cannot share the house with the actual owner or with another party making a competing adverse possession claim.
Adverse Possession of Urban Property
If one looks over the occupation requirements required by most states, it would seem -- at least potentially -- that a squatter can fulfill them all. This is almost always based on a misunderstanding of the statutes.
Following the mortgage meltdown of 2008-09, many U.S. houses went into foreclosure and ownership reverted to the lender. Subsequently, many houses went unoccupied for long periods of time. Squatters often moved in. Some then filed claims of adverse possession. What these squatters failed to take into account is that before an occupier can legally make the claim, he must complete the required minimum time of occupation. The claim on other grounds, the occupation requirements, cannot be made until then.
The Usual Result of Squatters' Claims
In most cases, the squatter makes the claim by filing a quiet title action that requires all parties making claim to the property to come to court, where the judge determines which claim is valid.
This presents the squatter with a classic "Catch 22" problem. If the claim is made without listing the true owner -- in this case, probably a bank -- the judge will throw out the quiet title action because it is defective. If the squatter does list the bank as the true owner, the bank will then come to court, show its title papers and the squatter's claim will be denied.
The reality is that once the true owner notices the squatter and expresses opposition to the occupation, the only legal right remaining to the squatter is to leave the property. Failing to do that may result in a trespassing violation or, worse, a misdemeanor or felony charge of flagrant or deliberate trespass. In some cases, squatters have even been charged with serious felony violations, including fraud.
When a Squatter's Claim May Work
In some cases, almost all of them concerning houses in remote rural areas, a cabin or other modest shelter may be abandoned by the true owner. In these cases, it is possible for a squatter to move in and live there for years undetected even though the occupation may be both open and "notorious," meaning plainly visible to a passerby, for the good reason that there are no passersby.
In instances of remote, rural house squatting, the adverse occupation claim eventually may be made. After the quiet title action is filed, the occupier may obtain title.
Even so, some states -- Alaska is one -- have amended their statutes to disqualify anyone who "knowingly" squats in property belonging to another, whether abandoned or not.