What you need to know about adverse possession in Virginia

As kids, we used to say “finders keepers.” And once we were adults, that notion seemed crazy, but adverse possession laws in Virginia actually fall in line with that idea. In short, adverse possession laws state that a person who does not own a piece of property can become the owner of that property.

To become the owner, the individual must inhabit an otherwise neglected piece of land and improve that land. In some cases, the non-owner must also pay the property taxes on that land to be considered the owner. For the non-owner to acquire the title of the land from the actual owner, the non-owner must inhabit the property for at least 15 years.

Adverse possession is allowed throughout the country, but Virginia has some of the toughest laws for taking ownership of such property. Most timeframes for making an adverse possession claim are shorter than the 15 years that Virginia requires.

History of adverse possession laws

The concept of adverse possession dates back to Roman law. Under the law, an individual that used or otherwise possessed an item could claim the rights to it after two years. However, if an individual stole the item in question  from the rightful owner, under Roman law the thief could not claim the item as their own.

Over time, the law expanded into Europe and then to America.

How to make an adverse possession claim

Several elements must be present for a non-owner of a piece of real estate to make a claim on that land. One of the key elements is that the statute of limitations on trespassing has expired and the rightful owner has not made a trespassing claim. Virginia law section 8.01-236 explains how the trespassing claim comes into play in adverse possession claims:

“No person shall make an entry on, or bring an action to recover, any land unless within fifteen years next after the time at which the right to make such entry or bring such action shall have first accrued to such person or to some other person through whom he claims; provided that an action for unlawful entry or detainer under § 8.01-124 shall be brought within three years after such entry or detainer.”

Additionally, the following elements must be present as well:

  • Without permission, the individual must take the property from the rightful owner.
  • The individual making the claim to the property must physically possess that property to make a title claim.
  • Onlookers must be able to clearly see that the person making the claim to the property is in possession of the property.
  • During a 15-year period, the person claiming the title to the property must have exclusive ownership of the property the entire time.

One exception to this law is public land or land owned by local government. For example, if your home is situated near a park, you cannot expand your property by encroaching on that park’s land through an adverse possession claim. Regardless of how long you encroach upon public land, you will not win an adverse possession claim.

How to avoid adverse possession claims on your property

If you believe that someone else is encroaching upon your property, you should talk to that person about your concerns. Generally, adverse possession claims come from a neighbor who may or may not knowingly place structures on your land. The neighborly thing to do when something like this starts is to just have a discussion about it.

When one-on-one discussions do not seem to work for getting your neighbor off of your land, you’ll need to file an action to quiet title. This proves that you own the land and that you would like the person encroaching on it to get off of that land.

One common use of the action to quiet title is when you’re working to sell your land and want to give some reassurance to the future owner that you do in fact own that land.

Virginia real estate lawyer

A Virginia real estate lawyer can help you file an adverse possession claim or fight an adverse possession claim that you’re facing on your property. There are tactics that your attorney can discuss with you about how to properly make a claim to a piece of land or defend your land.

In some situations, there is a dispute over who owns a piece of land due to inadequate recordkeeping. An attorney is a huge asset during these negotiations as well. Gore & Kuperman is a Virginia-based law firm offering real estate representation and more. Contact us to discuss your legal needs.