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How to Claim Land

Two Methods:Claiming Abandoned LandClaiming "Squatter's Rights" on Owned Land

In the U.S., it is possible to file claims on abandoned, unclaimed, and currently-owned land, depending on the circumstances. You can claim any land that has been turned over to the state's abandoned land division--in cases where the owner has died without heirs, or has failed to pay property taxes--for a filing fee and the price of any taxes owed on the land. If you have continuously occupied a land parcel for up to 20 years (or paid property taxes for five), you can file an adverse possession--"squatter's rights"--claim to the land with a local court. In any case, you must know the law, pay the fees, and follow legitimate channels in order to claim land and keep it.

Method 1
Claiming Abandoned Land

  1. Image titled Claim Land Step 1
    Find an abandoned property to claim. There are acres and acres of unclaimed land available in many U.S. states: in many cases, the owners of the property have died without leaving any heirs--or haven't been able to pay their property taxes--and the land ownership has defaulted to the city, county, or state. In most cases, you are able to claim land that has remained unclaimed for 3 to 5 years. You'll need to pay off any back taxes owed on the land, make sure that no blood relatives hold claim to the land already, and file your claim with the state's abandoned land department.
    • Many small, rural communities in states like Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wisconsin offer local land-grant programs intended to reverse depopulation. These grants are usually contingent upon some sort of development: some programs ask that you build a home of a certain size of value on the property, while other programs only offer land to entrepreneurs who promise to bring business to the community.[1] Run a web search for, say, "Nebraska free land" to find program listings; some sites even include the contact information for the city managers who oversee the unclaimed parcels.[2] If you find a city or county program for which you believe you qualify, contact the city manager to inquire about a grant.
    • If you have a specific property in mind, you'll need to ascertain the stewardship of the land (whether it's owned by the state, the county, or a public agency) and the property value as assessed by that agency. You will need to make sure that no-one else currently holds a competing claim to the land, and you'll need to go through legitimate, legal channels in order to ensure a lasting claim. Perhaps you own an adjacent property, and you want to annex the abandoned land into your own parcel; perhaps you knew the past owners, but you weren't outright related; perhaps you're just looking for a cheap piece of land to claim for homesteading purposes.
  2. Image titled Claim Land Step 2
    Check the tax roll for the city or county in which the property is located. The tax roll lists all taxable property within a given jurisdiction, along with the assessed value of each property.[3] This will tell you how much the land is worth, whether it's been claimed, and whether there's an outstanding tax bill that needs to be paid on the property before you claim it. Many counties have digitized this list onto a county-wide parcel assessor website: run a web search for "______ County Parcel Assessor".
  3. Image titled Claim Land Step 3
    Contact the unclaimed land division of the state where the land parcel is located. You need to provide the identifying map coordinates or the address of the land you want to claim.[4] Ask for all the information that they have pertaining to the land. Ask whether the unclaimed land department has had any contact with a possible owner or heir, and if so, how recently.
    • Inquire about back taxes owed against the land. You will need to pay these in full before taking possession. When property taxes are left unpaid for too long (five years, for instance, in San Francisco), the land title defaults to a public agency until the tax bill is satisfied. In order to redeem tax-defaulted property, you must pay the sum of the unpaid taxes, with interest, along with a redemption fee.[5]
    • There may be taxes that are being paid by a mortgage company, bank or another person as an owner. Contact whoever is paying the taxes. If they aren't using the land, they may be willing to let you take over the bill--and thus the claim.
    • It is rare to find a tax-free piece of land that has no owner, although it is a possibility.
  4. Image titled Claim Land Step 4
    Ask your contact at the unclaimed land division for an official form to claim the land. Fill out the form. They may direct you to a website where you can fill out the form online, or they may send you a form in the mail to fill out by hand and return.
    • The state abandoned land office will need to know your contact information, past residences and other personal information. You must be a U.S. citizen to claim land.
    • The state officials will ask you whether you are related to the prior owners; if you are, it will significantly boost your claim. If you are not blood-related to the former owners, be honest. Mention any ties to the land that may legitimize your claim: perhaps you spent time on the land growing up, or you are related by marriage to a prior owner, or you already own a neighboring parcel.
  5. Image titled Claim Land Step 5
    Claim the land. If you qualify with the unclaimed land office, and they don't find any heirs or blood relatives with a more legitimate claim than yours, then you can go ahead and stake your claim. Make arrangements with the land department to take possession of the land immediately. In most cases, you do not need to reside on the land, and you do not need to develop the land--but be sure to ask the land bureau about any ownership requirements before you finalize your claim.[6]

Method 2
Claiming "Squatter's Rights" on Owned Land

  1. Image titled Claim Land Step 6
    Understand how squatter's rights work--the legal term is "adverse possession". Under certain circumstances, a trespasser can occupy an owned piece of land (owned by someone else) for long enough to acquire legal ownership of it. This can apply to just a few feet of property, or to hundreds of acres. You need not know that you're "trespassing": in some cases, for example, you may have relied upon a faulty property description in a deed when building a fence on a neighbor's property. To make an adverse possession claim, you must be able to prove that you've been the sole occupant of the land for a set number of years--usually 20, although it can be as little as five years if you've been paying property taxes on the land. These cases are typically settled by filing a petition with a local court.[7]
  2. Image titled Claim Land Step 7
    Meet the requirements. In the U.S., you are entitled to legal ownership of a property if your occupation of the property is hostile; actual; open and notorious; exclusive and continuous.[8] Some states (such as California) outright require that you have been paying property taxes on the land. Decide whether the definitions apply to you:
    • Hostile: Courts define "hostile" occupation in two ways. Under the "Maine rule", you must have occupy the land for years, fully aware that you are trespassing: for example, a man in Nebraska, a state which follows this rule, gained ownership of the neighboring eight acres by using them for years. He knew that the property did not legally belong to him, and a court ruled his action as hostile. Under the "Connecticut rule", which is followed by most states, you need not know that you are trespassing.
    • Actual: As the "trespasser", you must actually be in possession of the property and treat it as if you were an owner--you must have a physical presence on the land, whether you outright live there or you've just build a fence.
    • Open and notorious: It must be obvious to anyone, including an owner who investigates, that a trespasser is on the land--perhaps you've planted and maintained a garden on the owner's land, or perhaps you've poured a concrete driveway several feet over the property line. Actual (physical) possession is usually open and notorious. In theory, if an owner allows someone to trespass for years without giving permission, complaining, or taking action, he or she loses the rights to the land.
    • Exclusive and continuous: You must possess the land exclusively, with neither dispute nor interruption, for a period of time determined by your state. This is often 20 years. You cannot leave the land abandoned (or in the possession of someone else) and then return to collect the claim.[9]
  3. Image titled Claim Land Step 8
    Understand the common defenses. You will need to build a case against the legal owner, and you should bear in mind the reasons why your claim might be denied. Know that publicly-owned government lands may be exempt from adverse possession claims.[10]
    • Permissive Use: If the actual owner has granted you permission to use the property, especially in writing, your adverse possession claim cannot be deemed "hostile" and thus will not stand up in court.
    • Insufficient Acts: Although the owner concedes that you engaged in some use of the property, he or she alleges that these acts were not enough to support a claim of ownership. Perhaps you walked across a neighbor's field for years to get to the store, but did not otherwise use the field; in this case, the judge might grant you an "easement", or right-of-way through the property, without actually giving you full ownership.
    • Non-Exclusive Use: The court concedes that you engaged in some use of the property, but alleges that someone else (usually the actual property owner) also used the property in a manner consistent with that of the landowner. Perhaps you grazed your cattle on the land, but your neighbor also grazed his cattle on the land--so you cannot claim that you used it exclusively.
    • Insufficient Time: Even if you meet several or most of the adverse possession requirements, the legal owner claims that your adverse possession did not last for the full statutory period (the 20 years of required use), or that your adverse possession was interrupted by a period of non-use. Perhaps you planted a garden on your neighbor's property for three years, let the garden go fallow for two years, and then resumed planting: your use was interrupted, so you can't claim full possession.
  4. Image titled Claim Land Step 9
    Build a case, file a petition, and claim your title. Once you have met all of the requirements for adverse possession, you may petition the court to "quiet title" and declare you the legal owner of the property. If the court grants your petition, the title will be cleared in your name, and you will become the exclusive legal owner of the property.[11]


  • Beware of scam artists. Do not pay for a list of available land unless you are dealing with an official state or county department and the fee is a service charge. Some groups may try to trick you into paying for "information" about land that is, in fact, already claimed.

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