Trespassers can perform legal land grabs

Published on Wed, Apr 30, 2014 by Mike Kent, realtor

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Your friendly neighbor could very well be stealing your property right under your nose, and what’s worse, it may be perfectly legal.

How can this be you ask? By way of “adverse possession.” The concept was originally intended to allow for flexibility when 
settling the West when land was so plentiful that often the structures built upon the land had far more value than the acres around them. In that day, new immigrants to the region could literally gain squatter’s rights by making use of the property when the rightful owner did not.

Today the adverse possession law still exists in Washington state, and some have used this antiquated rule of law to legally steal portions of their neighbors’ property. Here’s how it works:

Adverse possession is a method of acquiring the title to a property by possession for a statutory period of time under certain conditions, which include:

1) Continuous possession;

2) Hostile to the interests of the true owner; hence the term “adverse;”

3) Open and notorious, so as to put the true owner on notice that a trespasser is in possession; 

4) Actual, so that the true owner has a cause of action for trespass, on which the true owner must act within the statute of limitations; or

5) Exclusive possession, in order that there be no confusion as to who acquires the title once the time has run.

A typical statute will require possession for seven years if under color of title, or 20 years if not. For an explanation of those terms and details on whether you should have a concern you will need the expert opinion of an attorney.

Therefore, the neighbor’s RV that has been parked on your vacant lot for the past decade could make it their lot, and the fence built incorrectly over the property line years ago could end up being the new property line if you’re not paying attention.

In Blaine and Birch Bay there are some properties that have been owned by families for multiple generations, which has resulted in property lines that have not been properly monitored or surveyed for decades, leaving the plat lines in question. 

The best way to protect your land is to have a professional survey completed to establish what is deeded to be yours, and make the boundaries clear. If you see trespass taking place, take action to correct and stop the trespass. If you sense a concern, seek legal advice.

I have worked with clients who have lost valuable portions of their property over time through something as simple as their neighbor mowing or placing a small shed on their property. What they thought was an innocent act led them to lose the very land they had paid taxes on as owners for many years. 

Having an attorney draft an agreement may protect you if you are feeling generous enough to let someone else use your land for an extended period.

Most trespass happens through a misreading of property lines or even faulty property descriptions, but if the fence was built on that bad information or the neighbor’s garage protrudes where it shouldn’t be, you need to take time to make it clear if you want to keep your real estate. Surveys are cheap compared to the legal fees you would incur to defend your turf if it goes to court. And, most importantly, good neighbors respect where their land starts and ends, so establishing those boundaries before any potential for adverse possession begins is good for all parties.

When purchasing a property pay close attention to the plat map that your realtor provides, and if a survey is available use it to establish that there are no signs of encroachments. The old saying that fences make good neighbors works very well just so long as the fence is truly on the property line. The good news is that our small tight-knit communities of Blaine and Birch Bay are made up of mostly friendly folks who would never think of stealing their neighbor’s land, but knowing about adverse possession can prevent misunderstandings at best and turf wars at worst.

Next month I’ll address why zoning and title designations can be the most important considerations when choosing your address in Blaine or Birch Bay, and how our coastal location and rich maritime history often results in some unusual variances from property to property.