Obtain land through adverse possession

Adverse possession is a legal tactic that enables an individual or organization to gain possession of privately-owned land if that individual or organization has been actively using that piece of land for over twenty-one years.

What do I need to do to acquire a lot through adverse possession?

The legal requirements of adverse possession require an individual or organization to essentially squat on a parcel of land for a certain amount of time.  The requirements vary by state, but most states require the use be:

  • continuous for the statutory period (twenty-one years in Pennsylvania)
  •  actual, or use of the land as the owner would use it—a use in line with the character of the land. 
  • open & notorious: the user is not concealing his/her use of land, enabling the actual owner to see that another is using the property. 
  • continuous
  • hostile: the user cannot have permission from the owner.   For the statutory period to start, or for the clock to start ticking on your claim, you cannot be gardening with the permission of the property owner.  Therefore, short-term agreements with the owner for gardening will not help an adverse possession claim.
  • exclusive, which implies that the user is treating the property as if it is his/her own, to the exclusion of others.

Each of the latter five elements must be satisfied throughout the time required by Pennsylvania—or 21 years.  The squatter cannot abandon the property once he/she begins to adversely possess it. 

What does “statutory period” mean?

The statutory period is the amount of time that the above requirements must be fulfilled in order for adverse possession to work.  It is one of the biggest challenges to gaining land ownership through adverse possession in Philadelphia, because the statutory period in Pennsylvania is 21 years.  That means you need to be gardening continuously, on the same plot, to the exclusion of others, and without the permission of the owner for 21 years.

What are the pros and cons of pursuing adverse possession?

While adverse possession can be a helpful tactic for individuals or groups using otherwise vacant land for many years, it is a complicated process usually requiring a lawyer. 

Pros

  • Clear and defined path to land tenure
  • May be less expensive than buying property
  • A solution in cities with abundant vacant land, where no policy has prevented the land from continuing to exist unused

Cons

  • Adverse possession claims, or “quiet title actions” take time and resources
  • Gaining title through adverse possession does not rid you of the burden of unpaid debt, such as taxes or liens on the property that may have existed for decades on the property
  • The user must garden without the permission of the landowner for the statutory period to start, so short-term agreements with the owner do not help an adverse possession claim.
  • Users must fulfill many elements for a long period of time

Anything else I need to know?

Given the long statutory period of 21 years for an adverse possession claim, this tool is not likely helpful for recently started gardens.  However, if you have been gardening for years on a property that is privately-owned (often by an absentee or deceased property owner), then adverse possession is a more viable tool.   In this case, it is essential that you ensure your adverse possession claim will not result in your garden taking on the burden of years of unpaid tax debt or liens.