Homesteading Abandoned Property Adverse Possession

How to Homestead on Abandoned Property | Is It Legal?

December 05, 2020

Daniel Mark Schwartz Profile Picture

I myself have wondered, is it possible to homestead abandoned land that no one is using? I thought certainly no! But, you might be surprised to know that all 50 states have laws on the books that allow you to claim vacant land by living there. But, you might be surprised how it actually works!

Adverse possession laws allows you to claim vacant land by living there — that is homesteading it. In order to claim the land, you must: maintain control if continuously for a period of years (length varies by state), not have permission from the owner, live there openly, and be in actual control and exclusive control of the property.

So, is this open season on any vacant lot that you find? There is a lot more to know before, since living on some else’s land to get possession is paradoxically illegal until the course rule that it is legal. Catch 22!

Is Adverse Possession Free Land?

Adverse possession laws have a long history in the west. Ancient Rome had laws where squatters could take possession of land if the owners didn’t show up for a couple of years.

The purpose of adverse possession laws is to prevent vacant land from going waste if the owner has completely neglected it or is no longer interested in the land.

Laws allowing squatters to take legal possession of the land they are living on are currently in force in most countries with legals systems based on common law including England, Wales, and all 50 states of the Unites States.

According to Cornell Law School, you must meet five requirements to claim legal title of a property that you do not own via adverse possession —

  • Continuous —A single adverse possessor must maintain continuous possession of the property
  • Hostile — Possession infringes on the rights of the true owner
  • Open and Notorious — Possession must be obvious to anyone who bothers to look
  • Actual — The true owner has a cause of action for trespass
  • Exclusive — The adverse possessor does not share control of the property with any one else

One important take away is that you must be in volition of trespass law for this to work. For the whole time you are living no a property, if the real owner comes and orders you to leave, you must. Plus, the continuity requirement means the clock for adverse possession is reset.

Adverse possession is probably not the best option for getting free land in the United States and Canada. Here are some other creative ways to get free or cheap land —

How Long Do I Have To Live on Land to Claim Adverse Possession

In the United States, every state has their own different take on adverse possession laws, including the time you must posses the land to have claim to title. Here is a map those shows the time limit for each state in years —

Adverse Possession Free Land Laws in the US by State

The time you must “homestead” a piece of land to claim adverse possession of the title varies from 5 years to 30 years. California, Utah, Montana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida have the shortest periods of adverse possession: seven years or less. Louisiana and New Jersey have the longest periods, being greater than 20 years.

Additional Requirements for Adverse Possession

Some states have additional requirements in order to claim adverse possession. Also some states reduce the time of possession if you do one of the following

  • Pay property taxes on the lot
  • Show some form of deed or documentation on the lot (need not be legally binding)

Here are details of which states require you to pay property taxes when you live their to claim adverse possession. And, which states require a “deed” or other form of documentation.

States that have shorter time frames Ava bales if you meet additional requirements have those time separated by a “;”. These times match the requirements on the right, also separated by a semicolon. For instance, Alaska below shows 10 years with no additional requirements, but 7 years if you have a “deed.”

State Time (Years) Additional Requirements
Alabama 10 deed or taxes
Alaska 10; 7 none; deed
Arizona 10; 5; 3 none; deed, taxes if city lot; deed, taxes
Arkansas 7 deed, taxes
California 5 taxes
Colorado 18; 7 none; deed, taxes
Connecticut 15 none
Delaware 20 none
District of Columbia 15 none
Florida 7 deed or taxes
Georgia 20; 7 none; deed
Hawaii 20 none
Idaho 20 taxes
Illinois 20; 7 none; deed or taxes
Indiana 10 taxes
Iowa 10 none
Kansas 15 none
Kentucky 15; 7 none; deed
Louisiana 30; 10 none; deed
Maine 20 none
Maryland 20 none
Massachusetts 20 none
Michigan 15 none
Minnesota 15 taxes
Mississippi 10 none
Missouri 10 none
Montana 5 taxes
Nebraska 10 none
Nevada 15; 5 taxes; deed, taxes
New Hampshire 20 none
New Jersey 30 none
New Mexico 10 deed
New York 10 none
North Carolina 20; 7 none; deed
North Dakota 20; 10 none; deed, taxes
Ohio 21 none
Oklahoma 15 none
Oregon 10 none
Pennsylvania 21 none
Rhode Island 10 none
South Carolina 10 none
South Dakota 20; 10 none; taxes, deed
Tennessee 7 deed
Texas 10; 5 none; deed, taxes
Utah 7 taxes
Vermont 15 none
Virginia 15 none
Washington 10; 7 deed or taxes
West Virginia 10 none
Wisconsin 20; 10; 7 none; deed; deed, taxes
Wyoming 10 none

This information is provided for educational purposes only. While I believe all information here to be correct, I am not a lawyer. Seek professional legal advise in your state from a qualified professional for an updated an accurate interpretation of the laws in your area.

Adverse Possession of Public Land

Broadly, in the Unites States and the UK, adverse possession cannot be applied to public land.

In particular, in the United States this exempts —

  • Public parks and forests
  • Land owned by cities, counties, states, or the federal government
  • BLM lands
  • Military lands
  • Etc

Unless your land is owned by a private person or business, then you are unlikely to be able to claim adverse possession.

Abandoned Property vs Adverse Possession

Many states have additional statutes that cover claiming abandoned property. Abandoned property laws do not cover real estate. In order to claim ownership of a piece of land or a building, you will need to claim adverse possession.

However, if there are pieces of equipment, vehicles, or other items abandoned where you are, then you may want to look at abandoned property laws in your area to see if you can claim them.

Can you take ownership of an abandoned house?

It is possible to take ownership of an abandoned house through adverse possession. Although it is rare, all 50 states have laws that allow someone living without permission on a piece of land to claim ownership after a period of time. To lay claim, you must live there openly, continuously, and without permission.


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