Our Garage Is on Neighbor's Property: Can We Make the Land Ours Through Adverse Possession?

Having used a piece of your neighbor's property for years, it might be worth your while to assert a legal claim to ownership through adverse possession.

If you and your immediate neighbor have lived in your respective houses for a long time, you both might have stopped thinking much about property lines. You just live with what's there, whether it's grass, plants, or fencing. However, it sometimes happens that when one's neighbor decides to sell and, the process includes hiring a land surveyor to inspect the property lines. What happens if there's been a long-term misunderstanding?

Let's say, for instance, that your garage has been on the neighbor's property this whole time, though neither of you had any idea. Now the neighbor, understandably, wants you to knock the garage down to preserve or raise the value of the property. What can you legally do? Will "adverse possession" law let you keep the land? That's what we will examine here.

Legal Standards for Adverse Possession

The doctrine of adverse possession does, in some cases, allow someone who has used a piece of property for long enough to claim it as their own.

However, for a "trespasser" like yourself to successfully establish a claim of adverse possession, your use of the property must meet a number of criteria, including that it was hostile, actual, open and notorious, and exclusive for a continuous period, as 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 might be the point upon which this case turns. States' laws on the definition of "hostile" vary. In some cases, it involves an awareness that one was trespassing; in others, not.

Other than that, you appear to meet all of the legal elements of adverse possession. You were occupying your neighbor's land for decades without asking permission and without them saying anything about it. You possibly drove your car in and out multiple times each day. The neighbor never told you to pay rent; never had a lawyer write to you with demands; and never previously asked you to knock down your garage. Meanwhile, you went about using the land openly as if it were your own.

Next Steps If You Want to Pursue an Adverse Possession Claim

Be prepared for a court battle. Your neighbor has a lot on the line in a situation like this. Losing part of the land might significantly impact its value and, because of that, the neighbor might not back down without a legal fight.

You'll most likely want to hire a lawyer. 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.

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