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Can a house hunter use squatters rights?

A foreclosure sign sits on top of a

A foreclosure sign sits on top of a sale placard outside an home in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo. (Jan. 15, 2008) Credit: AP, 2008

Describing himself as a "savvy investor," a man used an arcane property-law doctrine known as adverse possession to squat in a vacant Dallas-area home.

Kenneth Robinson's gambit cost him $16 in filing fees paid to the county clerk's office, and he got eight rent-free months in a home valued at $340,000. The ploy gave him a hook to peddle an e-book explaining how other people could use adverse possession to squat in vacant homes and eventually claim legal title to those properties.

But lawyers familiar with the doctrine of adverse possession say Robinson got the law wrong. In February, the mortgage holder foreclosed. Robinson moved out rather than face eviction. Even though Robinson failed, it brings up the question of whether it's possible to succeed in taking a house via adverse possession.

Sometimes referred to colloquially as "squatter's rights," adverse possession is an old legal doctrine designed to resolve property disputes and encourage efficient land use.

Courts use adverse possession to resolve property disputes that could date back decades, says Brian C. Rider, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. Disputes often involve as little as a foot or two of land. Rather than getting bogged down on where a property line was decades ago, courts use adverse possession to set boundaries in accordance with how residents use them today.

What adverse possession does not do, says Rider, is establish so-called squatter's rights.

"The idea, which seems to be in vogue among people who want to become squatters, is that they get some rights immediately," Rider says. "That is not so. A squatter is a trespasser until he or she has been there long enough to get the benefits of the adverse possession statutes."

Adverse possession statutes exist in almost every state, and while the particulars vary, the general idea remains the same, says Charles Gallagher III, a real estate lawyer in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Generally speaking, adverse possession requires possession that is actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile, under cover of claim or right, and continuous and uninterrupted for the statutory period," Gallagher says.

In some states, the statutory period can be as long as 20 years; in others, it may be as few as seven years. But satisfying the numerous possession elements can often be tricky because it's not enough just to be present on the property.

"The difficult elements for a squatter would be exclusive use through some lawful claim or right," Gallagher says.

A squatter would achieve adverse possession only if he or she had a legal basis for being there and if the squatter's presence had the hallmarks of ownership. Courts usually expect those asserting claims of adverse possession to pay property taxes, maintain the land and generally treat it the way an owner would.

Lawyers familiar with adverse possession caution troubled homeowners against following Robinson's lead.

"I doubt that homeowners can meet the legal criteria to own their home outright under these legal standards," Gallagher says, adding that the owner still would owe the mortgage.

Homeowners seldom encounter property disputes involving adverse possession. If they do, it's usually a dispute over something such as a fence or a driveway. The doctrine tends to be more useful in rural areas where demarcation lines aren't visible.

"However, to squat in someone's home and satisfy the elements ... is more like an urban legend -- you hear a lot about it, but no one has actually met anybody that has done it," says Lionel Bashore, an attorney in Shelby Township, Mich.

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