Real property, even if it's physically abandoned, is rarely without legal ownership. However, that doesn't mean an abandoned house or building can't be claimed. Through a process known as adverse possession, someone who has fulfilled all the necessary legal requirements, which vary by region and municipality, can take legal ownership of an abandoned property. While adverse possession is a process of uncertainty and inherent risk, there has been increased success over the last three to four years.
Define Your Terms
Adverse possession is a long-standing common and statutory law that allows a change in ownership of real property through physically possessing it for a specific time frame. Requirements to fulfill the law vary, so consult with local jurisdictional entities to determine what you need to do. You can normally contact the county clerk or tax assessor’s office to initiate your research.
Abandonment Is Ambiguous
The first challenge to adverse possession is determining whether a property is actually abandoned. According to the Real Estate Center, a quarterly publication distributed by Texas A&M University's legal department, the distinction lies between the layman’s perspective of abandonment and the legal definition of the term. From the first point of view, a home that has been left unattended for a significant period of time has been abandoned; someone simply left and never came back. From the second, the owner must have left the property with no intent to return or execute their rights of ownership. You must be able to prove this in court.
Due Your Homework
To ensure you can make a legal claim of abandonment, take the time to do your due diligence. That means attempting to locate the legal owner. Remember that although the property is physically abandoned, that doesn't negate the fact that it's still owned by someone. A high foreclosure rate over the last five years has created a significant number of unattended houses. Many are owned by a bank or the entity that owns the bank’s assets. Once you have done your research, based on what you discover, you may decide the risks, such as the owner returning or taking legal action, are low enough to proceed with your attempt at adverse possession.
Meeting the Requirements
To initiate adverse possession you must take hostile and open possession. In this sense, hostile means to openly enter a property you have not been invited onto, with or without the owner's knowledge. You must also demonstrate the intent to take ownership, which can be accomplished by paying property taxes and making improvements. Your occupation of the property must be open; that is, you can’t hide the fact you're there. The occupation must be done exclusively and uninterrupted for the set time frame, which can range from three to 30 years depending on the jurisdiction and the particular situation.
Beating the Odds
Historically, adverse possession, has not had a high success rate. However, in the last three years more than 100 cities have modified their laws concerning abandoned properties; making it easier for investors and others to assume ownership. According to Bankrate, an investing and financial research firm, the rising number of abandoned homes has forced local municipalities to amend property abandonment laws; making it easier to assume ownership of abandoned properties.
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