How to 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 21 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 to 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 these 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 an adverse possession claim 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.

Think you could gain legal ownership of your garden through adverse pocession?

Check if your land has debt associated with it here.

New Jerusalem: An Example of Adverse Possession in Action

By filing an adverse possession lawsuit and working with city agencies, the Public Interest Law Center’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative helped a community garden and addiction recovery center in North Philadelphia secure possession of plots they had tended for decades.

New Jerusalem, located on the west side of North Philadelphia, is a residential addiction recovery community run by Medical Mission Sisters. In the 1990s, the non-denominational organization took over vacant lots and turned them into fruit and vegetable gardens. The gardens serve as a local and fresh food source for the community as well as meditation spaces for the Sisters and people in recovery.

In March 2018, we filed a successful adverse possession lawsuit that helped New Jerusalem obtain the deeds to two privately owned lots, with the help of pro bono counsel Morgan Lewis.

Adverse Land Posession Law- Case Study in Philadelphia for Urban Farm and Recovery Center

Credit: STEVEN M. FALK / S (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Think you may want to pursue an adverse possession claim? Contact the Garden Justice Legal Initiative here.

This information is accurate as of 2013 when Grounded in Philly was first launched; however, some information may have changed since then. Although The Public Interest Law Center works to make sure the information on the website is accurate and up to date, and has fixed inaccuracies that have come to our attention, we make no claim as to the accuracy of all of this information. We recommend that you consult with a licensed attorney if you want assurance that the information on the website and your interpretation of it are appropriate for your particular situation. We are continuing to improve Grounded in Philly’s accuracy and usefulness.

If you see something on this page that appears to be inaccurate, please contact Jonathan McJunkin.

More resources for securing access or ownership of land for your garden or farm

Philadelphia Stormwater Charge: Community Garden Discount

Here’s how you can get a discount on your Philadelphia stormwater bill for your community garden.

About Neighborhood Gardens Trust

The Neighborhood Gardens Trust is a crucial resource for the preservation of gardens and community green space, providing a trust for public land in Philadelphia.

Conservatorship of Vacant Properties

Conservatorship is a helpful tool to obtain the rights to manage a property in order to return it to productive use and into compliance with code.

Gardening Without Ownership

You don’t need to own vacant land to establish a community garden or green space in Philadelphia, but gardening without ownership comes with risks. Find out how to get started.

Licenses, Permits, and Regulations

If you plan to sell food produced in your farm or garden–especially prepared foods–you should be aware of Philadelphia laws about food safety & preparation.

Water For Your Garden

There are several options in Philadelphia for providing water to gardens and urban farms.

Liens and Debt

Unpaid debt from a previous owner can stand in the way of using a vacant lot for a community space–here’s how to find out if a vacant lot has debt, and what to do.

Employment and Labor Law

If you are looking to hire workers or have volunteers in your community garden or urban farm, you need to comply with state and local labor laws.