Who Owns Your Property? Adverse Possession in Virginia

At first glance, it might seem like the answer to that question is a no-brainer. Who owns your property? You do, of course! In Virginia, however, adverse possession law can allow someone else who occupies your property for a period of time to claim ownership of that property. Adverse possession takes a long time to establish, but if it is done properly, it can be used against you to give someone else ownership of your property, under Virginia state property law.

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How does this work, and how can you keep it from happening to you? Today we’ll familiarize you with adverse possession so that you can make sure your property remains your own, and out of the hands of potential squatters.

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Adverse possession was developed as a law not to disavow people of property they own, but to protect people squatting on pieces of property that were not being used by the owner. If a landowner is neglecting a piece of their land and someone else comes along, improves it, and lives on it for a number of years, property law states that that person has the right to remain on that piece of property and they can’t be just kicked off of the property if it would cause them hardship. This law was actually developed in early Britain as a way to mediate an issue where a landowner has neglected their property for a time, while another person has come along and made that piece of land useful and valuable. At TATE BYWATER we can assist you with concerns about adverse possession as well as any other property or real estate issues you may have.


Virginia doesn’t make it easy to prove adverse possession: you have to go to considerable lengths to establish trespasser possession. In order to prove adverse possession, the trespasser’s possession must be:

  • Hostile (without permission and against the right of the true land owner)
  • Actual (demonstrate control over property)
  • Exclusive (within the possession of the trespasser alone)
  • Open and notorious (not hiding their occupancy, and using the property as the real owner would)
  • Continuous for the statutory period (15 years in Virginia)

Here’s an example: Dave and Alma live next door to each other, without any dividing fence or clear boundary between their yards. Alma builds a yurt on what is actually Dave’s property, covering about ten square feet of his land. Dave says nothing. Alma uses the yurt as though it were on her own land (and she probably thinks that it is) for 15 years. Alma can probably establish that she owns the land her yurt is on at this point, even though it is technically Dave’s. Virginia’s courts will not allow Dave to suddenly eject her from “his” property after so many years, especially when there were mitigating factors during those years (he could have demanded a rental agreement or established that it was his property anytime during that 15 years, but did not).


Virginia’s time-period requirement is, at 15 years, a rather long one. But the trespasser doesn’t necessarily have to occupy the land for that entire time period. Let’s say Alma decided after 10 years to sell her yurt to Diego. Under the “tacking on” stipulation, if Diego occupied the yurt for another five years, he would be able to claim title of that land over Dave, as the total would be 15 years that the land had been under adverse possession.


If you notice the trespasser on your land, the first step is to speak to that person about your property and its boundaries. It’s the neighborly thing to do, and often, any dispute that you might otherwise think you have to take to court, can be very easily resolved in this manner.

If this doesn’t work, however, you might need to file an action to quiet title. This is basically a judicial declaration that you own the land and the trespasser does not. This sort of order can also help if you are selling your property, to assure prospective buyers that clear boundaries have been established and that there is no murky area insofar as property law is concerned.


You cannot claim adverse possession over public lands, no matter how long or hostile or exclusive your occupancy. If you build on public lands and it is determined that it is public land that you’ve built on, you will have to move, period. This goes for both state and federal property.

Do you have any questions about adverse possession? Do you think someone may be squatting on your property? Contact TATE BYWATER. We’re here to support you in your legal concerns regarding real estate, property rights, and much more. Contact us today!