ATLANTA - Squatters can steal your home... if you let them.
If you own a home, you have the right to keep unwanted intruders off your property. You can do this with fences or with signs, or even just by telling a trespasser to keep away. In cases of repeated intrusion, you can call the police, who will usually warn the person to stay away and, if necessary, make an arrest.
However, there is another kind of intruder, and ignoring the problem can result in actual loss of your ownership!
Here to explain the issue is real estate expert John Adams:
Another kind of trespass is more permanent: using another’s property as an owner would use it. A neighbor who puts up a fence two feet over the boundary line is trespassing, and so is a neighbor whose garage has been on your property for several years.
Question: John, what’s this all about?
Adams: Its called Adverse Possession, and its is a very real threat to your home.
You’ll be surprised to learn that, in Georgia, under certain conditions, a trespasser can come onto your property, occupy it, and gain legal ownership through the courts. The legal term for this is "adverse possession."
Q: That’s crazy! How can that be?
A: Through “adverse possession”, a trespasser can gain ownership of just a few feet of property or hundreds of acres. And the trespasser doesn’t need to intend to take the land by adverse possession.
Sometimes it happens through an honest mistake—for example, a neighbor may have relied upon a faulty property description in a deed when building a fence on your property.
Q: How does a claim like this end up in court?
A: Questions about legal ownership of property may arise in various situations, such as in the sale of a house.
For example, a closing attorney might refuse to issue title insurance when a property is sold when the neighbor’s garage is found to be standing even slightly on the property.
If questions about ownership of land arise in this type of situation, and the people involved cannot work something out, then the issue may end up in court.
The property owner may sue the trespasser (for example, the neighbor whose garage is encroaching), or the trespasser may bring a lawsuit to “quiet title”, a request for the court to decide who owns what.
Q: What are the Legal Requirements for Adverse Possession?
A: When courts look at adverse possession claims, they typically apply a four-factor test. To qualify as adverse possession, the trespasser’s occupation of the land must be:
- Open and notorious
- Exclusive and continuous for a certain period of time
Q: So what does hostile mean?
A: In most cases, simply occupying the property is defined as "hostile".
A: Typically, the must actually be present and possess the property.
This can often be established by providing evidence of the squatters efforts to maintain and make improvements to the property.
Q: What about "open and notorious?"
A: "Open and notorious" means that it must be obvious to anyone -- including the owner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate -- that a squatter has occupied his property.
Examples might even be a neighbor who puts a fence up slightly on your property or who poured a driveway two feet over the boundary line.
Q: What is Exclusive and Continuous Possession?
A: The trespasser must possess the land exclusively (that means the trespasser cannot share possession with strangers or the owner) and without interruption for a certain period of time. (That means the trespasser cannot give up use of the property, return to it later, and try to count the time that the property was abandoned as part of the "continuous" possession time period.) The time period required seems to vary by the court deciding the issue.
Q: So, How can we Prevent Adverse Possession?
A: Keep an eye on your property. If you suspect that someone has a possible adverse possession claim, check property tax records to see if this person (or anyone else) has made tax payments on the property. To prevent a trespasser from gaining property ownership, you can take the following steps:
- Post "no trespassing" signs and block entrances with gates. If you can prove you had signs posted, it can only help in court.
- Give written permission to someone to use your land, and get their written acknowledgement. If you find a squatter, give them your permission in writing. This can defeat adverse possession claims in the future.
- Offer to rent the property to the trespasser.
- Call the police and ask for a police report.
Q: And if all else fails?
A: You need a lawyer. You may need to file a lawsuit to eject the trespasser from the landlord. You must act before the trespasser has been in possession long enough, under Georgia law, to make a successful adverse possession claim.