Legal-Ease: How people acquire real estate without money

First Posted: 8/9/2014

If you watch TV late at night, you may see infomercials that talk about “magic tools” to obtain ownership of property by paying little or no money. Most of these infomercials discuss real estate “deals” at foreclosure sales, property “flips” or certain “secret” government grants.

However, Ohio law provides for a more upfront method of acquiring ownership of real estate without buying that real estate with money.

Generally, real estate ownership is governed by deeds filed in the recorder’s office of the county within which a particular property is located. Each deed to a parcel of property includes a description of the property (prepared by a licensed surveyor) and specifies the owners’ interests in that property. Validly recorded deeds usually determine who owns what property.

However, if a non-owner of property meets a few crucial requirements for 21 continuous years, that non-owner may become an owner of the portion/area of the property that satisfied those requirements. This method of acquiring ownership is generally disfavored in Ohio. However, it has been successfully used to change ownership of property, and it is known as “adverse possession.” Adverse possession does not apply to personal property.

For someone to effectively assert adverse possession, that person must prove a few strict requirements with clear and convincing evidence. If any one of the requirements is not satisfied, the adverse possessor cannot change ownership.

First, an adverse possessor must exclude the deeded owner from use of the subject area. Often, an adverse possessor excludes the deeded owner’s use of the area by simply using the area inconsistent with the deeded owner’s use. For example, an adverse possessor could mow an area that would otherwise be planted to farm crops by the deeded owner.

Second, an adverse possessor must have open and notorious possession of the area. Generally, an adverse possessor must act as if he or she owns the area at issue. An adverse possessor who mows the area’s grass, parks cars on an area and lets his or her children play on the area probably satisfies this requirement.

Third, the adverse possessor must not have permission to use the property. A lease or agreement by the deeded owner to allow the adverse possessor to use the area is sufficient to prove that the area’s use was not “without permission.” Of course, without permission, adverse possessors are technically trespassing and may be subject to civil or criminal consequences.

Fourth, the adverse possessor must meet the aforementioned three requirements for 21 continuous years. Multiple prior adverse users of an area can “tack together” their continuous adverse use to create a 21-year window.

Usually, adverse possession is not employed to “steal” real estate from someone else. Rather, adverse possession is most often invoked when property lines become uncertain over decades and reverting to the “survey lines” would be challenging.

An adverse possessor does not immediately acquire a deed to the area after 21 years. Rather, an adverse possessor only earns the right to prevail in a quiet title lawsuit.

Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney with Schroeder, Blankemeyer and Schroeder LLP in Ottawa. He limits his practice to business, real estate,estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at or at 419-523-5658. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.

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