Can Adverse Possession Threaten Your Property Rights?

Although it’s a legal principle grounded in ancient English common law, “adverse possession” is still alive and well today. Usually, property ownership passes through a purchase or an inheritance. In the case of adverse possession, an individual becomes a legitimate property owner by occupying property that doesn’t belong to him.


The law of adverse possession, which is based in the concept that it’s better for society when property is cared for rather than allowed to sit neglected, permits people to take over a property this way in relatively rare cases.

Adverse Possession in California

Perhaps one of the most notorious cases of adverse possession occurred in the Bay area over the past decade. Steve DeCaprio, a political activist turned squatters’ rights advocate, began renovating a home that had been abandoned since the 1980s. Over the course of a few years, he fixed the roof, cleared out debris, and restored the water flow to the home. After a years-long legal battle, DeCaprio was finally granted ownership rights to the home when no property owner could be located.


Adverse possession may be real, but it’s not easy to acquire a property in this manner. In California, an individual must continuously use or occupy the property for at least five continuous years. They must also occupy the property in an “open and notorious” way, which means they can’t hide their possession or use of the property by sneaking in and out or otherwise concealing their presence. Finally, their use must be adverse to the rightful owner’s interests. If the court determines that the adverse occupier should be granted ownership of the property, the new owner must also pay all of the property taxes due on the property.


Although DeCaprio’s story is an interesting application of adverse possession law, most adverse possession cases don’t involve houses. It’s much more common for someone to gain ownership of a stretch of property, such as a path, trail, or section of land abutting their own legitimately-owned property. Any time the use is hostile, open and obvious, and continuous, it’s possible for an occupier to lay claim to land, whether it’s a few feet, several acres, or an entire house. For example, an adjacent property owner who constantly walks across your backyard to gain access to the beach behind your home may eventually make a claim that the path is jointly owned. In this way, occupiers can end up as landowners without having spent a penny.


If you dispute a neighbor’s use of your land, it’s best to address the situation as soon as possible. Communication is important, so talk with your neighbor about your concerns. You should also speak to a California real estate attorney to determine whether you need to take any additional steps to protect your property interests.


California Eviction and Real Estate Law

Attorney Kirkman J. Hoffman has more than 20 years’ experience representing commercial and residential landlords, owners, and property managers in Silicon Valley and the surrounding regions. Contact the team at Hoffman Law Group today at (408) 241-9620 to discuss your real estate or eviction matter.


This website has been prepared by Hoffman Law Group, APC for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.