Daughter may have ‘squatter’s rights’ to home

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Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I have lived in my home for more than 20 years and paid my parents for all materials and labor they used over the years to fix it up, expand and maintain the place — not to mention paying all the other household bills, real estate taxes and other expenses here. My mom is now trying to make my husband and I pay rent, contrary to our agreement long ago. Don’t I at least have squatter’s rights?
— Deeatra

Dear Deeatra,
Your case is a little complicated and I don’t quite have enough information to cover all the bases. But let’s give it a shot.

If I read you right, you have had no formal rental or rent-to-own agreement with your mother and that is most unfortunate. Real estate attorneys say an alarming number of intra-family real estate arrangements that are seemingly initiated in good faith tend to end quite badly.

You may indeed have a case for “squatter’s rights,” also known as adverse possession. These rights typically apply to parties who have used a property openly and without objection from the deed holder for multiple-year periods, which vary by state. These typically range from seven years to 30 years of use, whereupon occupancy rights of a property often revert to the “squatter.”

It may be that your mother is aware of the law and the number of years its takes to kick in within your state — perhaps 21 — and she wants to arrange a rental agreement to circumvent it before it’s too late. Squatter’s rights, you see, do not apply to tenant-landlord relationships, even in instances where no rent is being paid.

So if you start paying her rent now, particularly with no agreement in place, you may leave yourself vulnerable if your case ever comes to court, even with the obvious extenuating circumstances.

It sounds as if you were involved in an informal lease-purchase arrangement with your mom where you were credited with rent based on the money you spent on the house (minus your regular bill-paying, except those real estate taxes). Make sure to track down as much evidence as you can of your payments in the form of canceled checks, receipts and the like to demonstrate your stake in the property.

This is one instance where you may have to see a real estate attorney or similarly qualified professional because thousands of dollars — and your home — may be on the line here. This professional may conclude that you have been in the house long enough to adversely possess it. If so, that’s a huge bargaining chip for you, if not the winning volley.

Failing that, consider asking your mom to meet you halfway and give you credit for your investment in the house as part of a down payment on the place. That way, you both can avoid court. Make sure this agreement is done in writing.

Good luck. I am truly sorry to see your family relationship suddenly tainted.

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