The gift shop rule states, “You break it, you buy it.” In real estate, the law of adverse possession operates sort of in the opposite direction. Under the Ohio version of this law, if a “trespasser” (more often a neighbor) openly possesses and cares for property that is not legally theirs for a continuous period of 21 years, that person may be able to claim legal ownership of the property.

In other words, you care for it (long enough), you own it.

This law strikes people as unbelievable when they first hear of it. What could possibly be the reasoning for legalizing what, on the surface, amounts to property theft? As Ruth Lee Johnson writes in Psychology Today, there are three principle rationales for adverse possession laws:

  • It validates disputed land titles where official records do not match reality.
  • It encourages landowners to be responsible about caring for their land.
  • It allows for the general body of law known as statute of limitations, allowing people not to worry about being sued for something that happened decades ago.

Requirements for adverse possession

To be sure, acquiring land through adverse possession is not easy. Ohio law stipulates that the following requirements must be met:

  • Open and notorious – The adverse possessor must use the land as the real owner would without hiding his or her occupancy.
  • Continuous – The land must be possessed for a period of 21 years. Several successive periods of possession by different people may be tacked to each other.
  • Exclusive use – It must be exclusive of the true owner of the land asserting his or her right to the property.
  • Actual – The adverse possessor must exercise control over the property.
  • Hostile – the possessor must infringe on the true owner’s rights.

Protecting property rights

The adverse possession law is upsetting to many people because they expect laws to protect rightful owners. As Johnson states, generations of people have had strong emotional ties to their land, and this doctrine appears to reward the wrongdoer.

“The truth is, no matter how emotionally objectionable adverse possession appears, it is relatively easy for a true owner to avoid,” she writes. A true owner who wishes to retain their rights to the land without removing the person from the land immediately could provide documented consent to the trespasser allowing him or her to be on the land or to care for the land. This would defeat the hostility requirement and negate any chance of adverse possession.

Of course, it is always wise to enlist the help of a knowledgeable real estate attorney when complex legal issues about property ownership arise.