Squatters may take legal title to property through a process called adverse possession, which requires an open and notorious use of the land, including actual occupation, without the owner's permission for a period of years, exclusively and continuously. In New Jersey, that period is 30 years.
Following the mortgage meltdown of 2008-2009, many homes went into foreclosure and were subsequently unoccupied and abandoned. Eventually, squatters moved in. Some believed their occupation gave them the right to possess the property, but in almost all these instances, no such right existed. The requirements for adverse possession - the legal mechanism for squatters to obtain legal title to a property - generally are rigorous, and New Jersey's statutes are stricter than most.
New Jersey's Time Requirement
In every state, a squatter must occupy the property for a specified minimum number of years before he can try to say the property actually belongs to him.. New Jersey's requirements are particularly stringent. Woodland or uncultivated property must be occupied for a minimum of 60 years. Developed property - an abandoned house, for example - must be occupied for at least 30 years.
Other Requirements for Adverse Possession
New Jersey's adverse possession statutes have the usual requirements for adverse possession stipulated in most state laws:
- The occupation must be hostile. This means that the trespasser must occupy the property without the owner's permission.
- The occupation must be actual. The trespasser establishes possession by living on the property or occupying it continuously, not merely by putting up a notice that he owns it.
- The occupation must be open and notorious. The trespasser's use of the property may not be covert and must be apparent to even a casual passerby.
- The occupation must be exclusive and continuous. An exclusive occupation doesn't necessarily mean that no one else uses the property during the occupation, but it has to be clear that the use by others is with the trespasser's permission -- he has to act like an owner. A trespasser can establish a continuous occupation if he uses the property regularly. Short absences, such as leaving to go to work or to shop, do not interrupt the continuity of occupation. Long and irregular absences reset the clock.
Quiet Title Actions and Squatters Rights
If you do want to claim ownership by adverse possession, you'll need a quiet title action before you actually have legal title. A quiet title action is a suit brought before the court when ownership of property is either disputed or in doubt. The suit aims to determine who is the rightful owner. At that point, the winner of the suit can record the quiet title just like any other and becomes the rightful owner of a property.
Historically, states have interpreted adverse possession statutes in conflicting ways. In the 21st Century, however, courts have interpreted - and in some cases legislatures have amended - adverse possession statutes to disqualify deliberate and knowing occupation and to allow an occupation to move to possession only if the trespass is the result of a good faith or innocent mistake--if, for example, a neighbor mistakenly places a boundary fence on neighboring property. New York, for example, restricts adverse possession to "good faith" situations where the possessor honestly thought the property was his, categorically disallowing knowing trespassers from possession. New Jersey has no such statute, however; whether your possession is knowingly or unknowingly adverse, you can use it to gain title.