We've lived in our house for two decades, and our neighbor has lived in his for about as long. He’s looking to sell his house and, in the process, hired land surveyors to come and inspect the property lines. Turns out, our garage has been on his property this whole time. We had no idea, and neither did he. Now he wants us to knock down the garage so that the value of his property is greater. What can we do?
Usually, adverse possession claims arise from small encroachments, like sheds built or trees planted on a neighbor’s land. Here, you have a very large encroachment: an entire garage. Nevertheless, it's entirely possible that you can establish an ownership claim over the garage and the land it sits on.
For a “trespasser” like yourself to successfully establish a claim of adverse possession, your use of the property must have been hostile, actual, open, and exclusive for the period set in your state's statute. Although the statutory period varies from one state to another, it is usually at least seven years. Read more about adverse possession claims.
The fact that this was an honest mistake does not matter; you can probably argue that you meet all of the legal elements of adverse possession. You were occupying your neighbors land for decades without asking permission and without him saying anything about it. You presumably drove your car in and out multiple times each day. He never told you to pay rent; he never had his lawyer write to you; and he never previously asked you to knock down your garage. Meanwhile, you went about using the land openly as if it were your own. This is the very definition of adverse possession.
Remember that your neighbor has a lot on the line here. Losing that part of his land might significantly impact his property value, and because of that, he might actually take you to court. If he does, you and your lawyer will need to be prepared to prove that you meet all of the elements of adverse possession, or perhaps to settle the matter without proceeding through a complete trial.