Can I take possession of abandoned property?


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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I found a small overgrown parcel on a cliff overlooking an area lake. It has a tiny cabin which is rotting away and an abandoned 1970s-era RV. It’s obvious that neither has been tended to in years.

I want to claim the abandoned property to repair it and build something new. How do I do this?
— Branden A.

Dear Branden,
All land is owned, either by private individuals, developers, Native American tribes, corporations, cities, states or the federal government, including the U.S. Forest Service.

There’s really no easy way of “claiming” an abandoned property, although so-called “squatter’s rights” can technically allow you to gain control of land you openly maintain and use for a set period, determined by state law.

Such “adverse possession” periods range from five to 30 years with an average of 10 years, plus jurisdictions are cracking down and in many cases arresting overzealous squatters, so this likely won’t work for you.

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Find out whether the land is for sale

Not to say you won’t be able to buy the land for a bargain price and/or pay any back taxes owed on it.

First, look for for-sale signs around the lake area with contact numbers. If there’s no contact posted, look to see if there’s a physical address for the place or a mailbox. If so, you can probably find out the owner by contacting your local tax jurisdiction. Find a list of county recorders and assessors on this website. If there is no address, you may have to ask for a plat map to identify the abandoned property and its owner.

Another option is to contact the owners of cabins or lake homes in the immediate area. They may know the fate of the previous occupants and/or who owns the land now and what some of the development policies are there.

Exercise discretion because isolated residents can be eccentric at times. You might leave a note first with your phone number and address, then return (cautiously) if you hear nothing. You also can ask a few owners if they’re considering selling. But stress that you are asking for yourself, not an investor.

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Realize that the former occupant of the parcel that you’re interested in may just have been leasing the land from another owner or the U.S. Forest Service, if it happens to be part of a national forest.

Suggest a long-term lease option

Or, they may have been using it illegally. It’s also possible the cliff site is unstable and has been declared unfit for structures.

One option would be to offer to repair the cabin for the owner in exchange for living in it in a long-term lease, assuming the land is private. Get everything in writing though.

You don’t want any surprises. As you no doubt realize, you’ll need at least some basic infrastructure, so expect to pay hundreds of dollars for hookups and thousands for new utilities.

Also, check out zoning laws in the lake area’s jurisdiction to determine if there are any area building or redevelopment restrictions, plus ask city or county planners or officials if property in that area is pegged for future residential and road development.

Good luck!

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