Dear Consumer Ed:
There’s an empty lot next to our house. The owner doesn’t maintain it, and we end up trimming the vines and hedges that would otherwise grow over our fence. If we continue to maintain that property, will we eventually own it?
Consumer Ed says:
You’re thinking of adverse possession—and no, you won’t gain ownership to your neighbor’s property simply by maintaining the hedges and vines that come onto your property. Generally, when an adjacent neighbor fails to maintain her property, it’s a good idea to talk with her first, or send her a written note asking if she could please address the out-of-control vegetation. If she isn’t willing to do so, then it’s best to file a complaint with your city or county authorities. Many cities and counties have ordinances requiring property maintenance. To determine if your local government authority has such a requirement, visit its official website; if there’s no official website, or if you can’t find the ordinances there, you can go to www.municode.com, select your state of residence, then search by city or county. If your neighbor is violating any of the local property maintenance laws, your filing a complaint could result in her receiving a violation notice requiring her to comply with those laws or face a fine.
That being said, there are circumstances where you may eventually be able to gain legal ownership to property through adverse possession. You should consult with a lawyer to get a better understanding of these circumstances. Generally, however, in Georgia, you can acquire property through adverse possession only if all the following criteria are satisfied: you actually possess the property (i.e., live on it or otherwise show that you’re claiming it); your possession of the property is “open and notorious” (meaning you don’t make any attempt to hide your possession from either the owner or the public at large, and the owner doesn’t dispute your claim or make any attempt to interrupt your possession); your possession of the property is exclusive (no one else is occupying or otherwise staking claim to the property); you possess the property without interruption for the entire period of time required by state law; and your possession is accompanied by a claim of right (which simply means you’ve actually claimed the property as your own). In Georgia, ownership of adversely possessed property can be gained if you comply with all the preceding requirements for 20 years, or seven years if the property is possessed under color of title. Color of title simply means that a person has a reasonable belief that s/he has an actual right to possess the property.
These requirements are in place to protect the actual property owner, so that s/he will have adequate notice of a potential adverse possession. Based on the information you provided, your circumstances would not support any ownership claims to your neighbor’s property.
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