With the owner's permission, I've lived in a trailer on his ranch property for over 25 years. Do I now own the land on which the trailer sits? What's the law on squatter's rights?

It depends. You might be able to acquire the land through what’s known as adverse possession if you meet several statutory requirements in your state. You may also try possession under a claim of right if there is reason to believe that you have a right to be there and claim the land – perhaps because you were watching over the property for the owner, who said that if you look out for the rest of the land, whatever land you are occupying will be yours. However, you should contact an attorney in your state who can explain what your state's rules are and how they apply to your exact situation.

Acquiring Land through Adverse Possession

Adverse possession is the most common way that squatters acquire title to the land they occupy. Each state has a set of laws that set forth the time period and other requirements for adverse possession in that particular state. The way adverse possession works is that after a period of time, a trespasser becomes the new owner and the old owner can no longer eject the squatter.

It should be noted, however, that even if a tenant pays rent to live in a house for 20 or 30 years, he or she will not have rights to that house, as that tenant occupies the property with the true owner’s permission. As long as the renter, or trailer occupant, was on the property with the owner’s permission, the occupation was not adverse to the owner’s title and hence would probably not allow the squatter to claim title by adverse possession.

The doctrine of adverse possession may seem harsh, but it serves a useful purpose. If the law is meant to favor economically-beneficial uses of real estate, then it makes sense to punish owners who fail to put their land to productive uses. At the same time, it often makes sense to reward those who do make productive use of the land. 

To acquire title by adverse possession, there are five basic requirements that squatters must meet.

Five Basic Adverse Possession Requirements

First, the trespasser must take actual possession of the land (i.e., that the squatter must enter and occupy the property). Usually, the trespasser does not have to be physically present on the property at all times to meet the actual possession requirement. Continuous use of the property such as through farming, hunting, or building structures is often enough.

Second, the adverse possessor must take exclusive possession of the land (meaning that the true owner and all other people are denied occupancy and use of the land being adversely possessed). Most states do not allow more than one person to claim adverse possession to the same piece of land, but a few do allow this where one adverse possessor has color of title or some other superior claim. This means that in most states, the presence of another adverse occupant prevents the limitation period from beginning to run, or resets it to zero if a newcomer comes to the property at a later date.

Third, the possession must be “open and notorious,” in that the squatter does not conceal his or her actions. This means that the adverse possessor blatantly and obviously uses the land for his or her own purposes, thereby giving actual or constructive notice to the true owner. Actual notice amounts to delivering notice directly to the owner, either by mail or orally, while constructive notice is given when the adverse possessor’s acts are so visible and obvious that an alert owner of property would have reason to know of their presence. Actual notice is not usually required for a valid adverse possession claim; constructive notice is enough.

Fourth, the possession must be adverse or hostile to the true owner’s property interest, meaning that the squatter occupies the land without the true owner’s permission and with an intention to remain. A tenant’s occupancy is not hostile to the owner’s title to the property, and hence in our original scenario he or she is unlikely to acquire title by adverse possession.  However, if the tenant were to overstay the lease (i.e., become a “holdover tenant”) he or she may become “hostile” and the limitations period may begin. Some jurisdictions require that a holdover tenant must vacate the property and then re-enter to start the adverse possession.

Fifth, the adverse possession must be continuous for the entire time period required by the law of the state in which the property is located. Check your local laws to determine the statutory time period required for adverse possession in your state. Keep in mind that even a brief departure from the property can be enough to end the prior occupancy and start the limitations period anew. For instance, if the trailer had been removed from the land for a few weeks beginning in the eighth year, upon reentry to the land you would be back at year one in terms of the adverse possession time requirements. 

Color of Title

Some states differentiate between people acting in good faith but have a faulty deed (i.e., they possess the land under color of title) and those who have no good faith claim to the land. Judges often give more favorable treatment to good faith trespassers than those who seek to “steal” a piece of land that they knew all along did not belong to them. For instance, a farmer purchases a land with a faulty (or “defective”) deed that incorrectly defines the property boundaries. The farmer mistakenly believes the land on which she builds her stable belongs to her, when in fact the stable straddles the boundary between her property and her neighbor’s. Under this set of facts, the farmer might acquire the title to the land beneath the stable after, for instance, 5 years – rather than the 20 years – her state may normally require for adverse possession. Many states requiring color of title also require the squatter to have paid taxes on the property in question throughout the limitation period.

Color of title often impacts the size of the property that is acquired adversely. A trespasser acting under color of title may adversely acquire the entire plot of land listed in the faulty deed, whereas a bad faith squatter would acquire only the piece of land he or she occupies. In the example above, suppose that the farmer’s defective deed purported to grant her 10 acres of her neighbor’s land. In a jurisdiction that follows the color of title rules, she could acquire all 10 acres provided the adverse possession requirements have been met. If she were a bad faith trespasser, and knew when she built the stable that she was encroaching on her neighbor’s land, she would likely have to meet a longer limitation period and in the end she would only acquire the land occupied by her stable. 

Contact an Attorney in Your State

Because of the strict requirements outlined above, “bad faith” adverse possession claims rarely succeed. It is also worth noting that government-owned lands can never be adversely possessed. Some valid claims of adverse possession do exist, and therefore it is worthwhile to check with your attorney if you believe you have a good case. In any situation of adverse possession or other procedures of acquiring land through squatter’s rights, it is a good idea to consult with a real estate attorney in your state.