Imagine waking up one day to find unauthorized occupants residing on your property, claiming it as their own. This nightmare scenario is a real concern for property owners.
This article will discuss squatter’s rights in Ohio and the strategies you use to safeguard your property from squatters legally.
How Does Ohio Define a “Squatter?”
A squatter is a person who settles or locates on land with no bona fide claim or color of title and without the owner’s consent.
Can a Squatter Obtain Title to Land In Ohio?
The short answer is “Yes.”
Let me tell you of a case that will show how absentee ownership can lead to a squatter obtaining title to property through adverse possession.
“Mr. Anderson,” a businessman from California, acquired a 10-acre piece of property near Dayton with future retirement plans in mind.
However, Mr. Anderson rarely visited or monitored the property due to professional obligations and living out of state. This limited oversight created an environment ripe for a squatter to take control of the property.
In the backdrop of Mr. Anderson’s infrequent visits, a squatter, whom we’ll refer to as “Mr. Squatter,” recognized the unattended property as an opportunity for improvement.
He decided to enter the land and transform it from an ignored plot to a well-maintained tract. This transformation was marked by clearing debris, putting up a fence, and constructing a small cabin.
Twenty-one years later, Mr. squatter claimed legal ownership of the property using the doctrine of adverse possession.
With legal representation, Mr. squatter initiated a quiet title lawsuit, asserting his rights based on his continuous, open, and substantial improvements to the property.
As the case progressed, evidence was produced explaining Mr. Anderson’s original intent to retire on the property and the extenuating factors that limited his involvement, especially considering he lived in California. Mr. Anderson produced evidence that he paid the taxes on the property every year.
However, as the evidence unfolded, it became evident that Mr. Squatter’s actions aligned with the legal criteria for adverse possession, compelling the court to rule in his favor.
This case serves as a sobering reminder that property ownership is not solely determined by acquisition; it requires ongoing engagement and stewardship to retain ownership rights.
The story of Mr. Anderson and Mr. Squatter highlights the importance of proactive property management. No matter the rationale, neglecting an investment can expose property owners to unintended legal consequences.
How Does a Squatter Obtain Title By Adverse Possession in Ohio?
A party who seeks to establish title to real property by adverse possession in Ohio must prove that he possessed the land and that his possession was (1) Adverse, (2) Open, (3) Notorious, (4) Exclusive, and (5) continuous for twenty-one years.” Pennsylvania Rd. Co. v. Donovan (1924), 111 Ohio St. 341, 349-350, 145 N.E. 479, 482
Failure to prove even one of these elements will defeat an adverse possession claim.
Here is what the courts in Ohio have said about each one of the elements necessary to establish adverse possession:
This means the possessor does not have the owner’s permission to be on the land. “Adverse” does not mean anger or hatred. The state of mind of the adverse possessor is irrelevant.
If the possessor initially enters the land with the permission of the actual owner, the possession does not become adverse until the possessor makes clear to the actual owner that she is claiming “hostilely.”
This can be done by explicit notification, refusing to permit the actual owner to come onto the land, or other acts inconsistent with the original permission.
For adverse possession to be considered “open,” the property must be used “without attempted concealment.” (See Hindall v. Martinez, 69 Ohio App.3d 580, 584, 591 N.E.2d 308 (3rd Dist.1990)).
For adverse possession to be considered “notorious,” the use must be “known to some who might reasonably be expected to communicate their knowledge to the owner if he maintained a reasonable degree of supervision.”
“In other words, the use of the property must be so patent that the true owner of the property could not be deceived as to the property’s use.” (See Hindall at 583, 591 N.E.2d 308).
Example: A Cable Company runs a cable under Landowner’s land, and there is no indication of the cable’s existence from the land’s surface. The Cable Company cannot gain title by adverse possession because there is nothing to put the Landowner on notice of the trespass.
4. Exclusive Possession
To establish exclusive possession, “the use of the property does not have to be exclusive of all individuals.” Instead, it must be exclusive of
- (1) the true owner entering the land and asserting his right to possession and
- (2) third persons entering the land under their own claim of title or claiming to have permission to be on the premises from the actual titleholder. (See Turner v. Robinson, 2017 Ohio 7228 – Ohio: Court of Appeals, 4th Appellate Dist. 2017).
“Exclusive” means that the possessor is not sharing the land with the actual owner or the public. This requirement allows two or more people to work together to obtain title by adverse possession. If they do so, they will get the title as tenants in common.
Example: Ann and Bob are next-door neighbors. They planted a Christmas tree farm on 20 vacant acres behind their homes. Ann and Bob share expenses and profits from the Christmas tree farm. If all other elements for adverse possession are present, Ann and Bobb will own the lot as tenants in common at the end of the twenty-one-year period.
5. Continuous for Twenty-One Years
The adverse claimant’s possession must be continuous throughout the Twenty-one years. Continuous possession requires only the degree of occupancy and use the average owner would make of the property.
For adverse possession to be “continuous,” there must not be a substantial interruption, “with daily or weekly use generally not being required as long as the use is continuous enough to indicate prolonged and substantial use.” (See Greene v. Partridge, 78 NE 3d 197 – Ohio: Court of Appeals, 4th Appellate Dist. 2016).
There also does not need to be twenty-one years of continuous possession by the same person. Ordinarily, an adverse possessor can take advantage of the periods of adverse possession by his predecessor.
Separate periods of adverse possession may be “tacked” together to make up the entire ten-year period with the result that the final adverse possessor gets title by adverse possession.
Strategies to Safeguard Your Property Against Adverse Possession
Avoiding adverse possession of your property involves taking proactive measures to protect your ownership rights and prevent others from acquiring legal ownership through continuous and open use.
Here are some strategies to consider:
- Regular Property Inspections: Regularly inspect your property to ensure no one uses it without your permission. This will help you identify any potential adverse possession claims early on.
- Clear Boundaries: Mark the boundaries of your property with fences, walls, or other visible markers. This can help prevent encroachments and clarify where your property lines lie.
- Communication: If you become aware of someone using your property, communicate with them in writing to assert your ownership rights and ask them to stop. This establishes a record of your efforts to prevent adverse possession.
- Property Tax Payments: Continuously pay property taxes on time. Failure to pay property taxes can weaken your claim to the property and make it easier for someone else to claim adverse possession.
- No Permission: Do not grant permission for others to use your property in a way that might be construed as allowing them to gain ownership. Any permissive use can weaken your defense against an adverse possession claim.
- Document Everything: Keep records of property surveys, deeds, property tax payments, and any communication with individuals using your property without permission. These records can be crucial evidence if a dispute arises.
- Lease Agreements: If you allow someone to use your property temporarily, create a written lease agreement that explicitly states their lack of ownership rights and specifies the duration of use.
- Regular Use: Continue using your property regularly. Regular, consistent use helps demonstrate your active ownership and can undermine any adverse possession claims.
- Legal Action: If you become aware of a potential adverse possession claim, consult a real estate attorney to discuss your options. Taking legal action early on can help protect your ownership rights.
- Post Warning Signs: If applicable, post signs indicating your property ownership. While not foolproof, this can discourage individuals from attempting adverse possession.
- Negotiation: If you discover someone is using your property without permission, consider negotiating an agreement that reaffirms your ownership while allowing them to use the property under certain conditions.
- Land Use Agreements: If you know someone using your property, you can create a land use agreement outlining their use while reaffirming your ownership. This agreement can help prevent adverse possession claims.
How Can a Landowner Get Rid of Squatters In Ohio?
Here are some steps you can take if you have squatters on your land in Ohio:
- Start With a Conversation: First, determine if the individuals on your property are indeed squatters or if they claim to have some form of legal right to be there, such as a lease agreement. You’ll need to address the situation differently if they have any legitimate claim to the property.
- Contact Law Enforcement: If the individuals are squatters and you want them to leave, you can start by contacting local law enforcement. However, law enforcement might consider it a civil matter and might not get directly involved in removing squatters.
- Serve Notice: To start the legal process, you’ll likely need to serve the squatters with an eviction notice. The type of notice required can depend on the situation. Consult with a lawyer in your area to determine the appropriate notice to use.
- File for Eviction: If the squatters do not leave voluntarily after being served an eviction notice, you’ll likely need to file for eviction in court. This involves filling out the necessary paperwork and following the legal process for eviction as outlined in Ohio law.
- Obtain a Court Order: If the court determines that the squatters should be evicted, they will issue a court order requiring the squatters to leave the property within a specified period. If the squatters still do not leave, you may need to involve law enforcement to enforce the court order.
- Enforce the Court Order: If the squatters do not leave after the court order is issued, you will need to work with law enforcement to physically remove them from the property. It’s essential to follow all legal procedures to avoid any potential legal liabilities.
I strongly recommend seeking legal advice from an experienced real estate attorney in Ohio if you have concerns about squatters and adverse possession. An attorney’s expertise will clarify local laws, the feasibility of your claim, and the potential risks involved.