When I’m lecturing around the country at various self-build courses, and I get onto the subject of plot evaluation, I often ask the audience if they know what ‘Adverse Possession’ is. Invariably I’m confronted with blank faces.

Then I ask the question, “Who knows what ‘Squatters’ Rights’ are?”

And gradually hands start to go up and comprehension begins to grow on faces.

Then I go on to talk about how the first owner of the land, the Crown, parcelled it up and divvied it out to those who could be of service to it, and how it could not contemplate land falling out of use — and, therefore, out of productive benefit on its behalf. As I talk I’m well aware that much of the audience think that what I’m talking about seems almost archaic, with no place in this modern world of registered titles.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In England and Wales, if you occupy land ‘without let or hindrance’ for more than 12 years, you can register a Possessory title, which gives you nearly all of the rights of an Absolute title. You have to give the Land Registry two years’ notice of your intention — and it’s extremely unlikely that any attempt to gain title on registered land would be successful. But if the occupancy is uninterrupted, it stands a fair chance of success. After another 12 years of occupation, the Land Registry will normally upgrade the title to Absolute. If anyone comes along claiming ownership during the first 12 years, the Adverse Possession will fail. If they come along in the second 12-year period, they will have rights over the land but not necessarily the right of occupation, and the matter will go to court for them to receive some settlement. That’s why it’s essential to have a single premium indemnity policy to cover such an eventuality.

In Scotland you have to create your own Prescriptive title to land and then occupy it for ten years without challenge before it becomes an Absolute title.

Way back in the early 1970s, I purchased some plots in Cambridgeshire – 22 in all – on behalf of the development company I was Estates Manager for. The land was mostly overgrown but, where it adjoined a row of houses, divided from them by a small stream, one of the occupants had erected a timber bridge, and an area of land – the width of their plot by about ten metres – was neatly mown. Before the ink was dry on the contracts for purchase, the owners of the house had filed for a Possessory title. They got it. They had photographs of their then-approaching-adult children at a young age playing on swings, and sworn declarations that they had occupied the land without let or hindrance for a period exceeding 12 years. We lost a plot and I learnt one great big lesson.

So much so that in later years, looking at another plot in Cambridgeshire on a Plotfinder Challenge (a long-running H&R series, currently on hiatus), I pointed out to the potential buyers that part of the plot was being used as a vegetable patch by adjoining owners. I urged them to check that no Adverse Possession had been established and to go back to the vendors to have the occupancy ceased immediately.

The year before last, my son purchased a plot in Gloucestershire with part Possessory and part Absolute title. The house he built is actually situated entirely on the Adversely Possessed land and it’s only the garden that has Absolute title. If he hadn’t had me to explain the situation to him, he might well have walked away from a perfectly serviceable plot. And my daughter purchased a bungalow in Kent where much of the front garden is not technically in her ownership, as it was retained by the building company in anticipation of the Highways Agency requiring a footpath across the frontage, which would then be adopted. In fact, the requirement was never realised, the land never adopted, and the building company has ceased to exist. At the relevant time my daughter will apply for a Possessory title citing 12 years of uninterrupted occupation and she will then obtain an indemnity policy to cover the very slight chance that somebody somewhere has acquired the rights of the now-defunct development company.

So there’s nothing archaic about Adverse Possession. It’s a live and ongoing thing, and these days the most likely occurrence is where a garden abuts fallow land that nobody seems to care about. Eventually, fed up with fighting a losing battle against the encroachment of weeds, the householder moves their fence out and incorporates the land into their plot.

The lessons? You need to learn about your rights if you are occupying land that’s not strictly in your ownership. Look out for signs of occupation by others on any property you’re thinking of buying. Remember, if the occupancy is interrupted before the passage of the first 12 years, any Adverse Possession will fail. And, most importantly of all, remember that plotfinders can benefit from Squatters’ Rights more than most people.

  • Anonymous

    I bought a house with land back in 1993. Since 1958 there have been ongoing signed declarations from one owner to the next to use a small parcel of land within a larger field. In 1976 this small parcel of land was register at the Land Registry by someone else but they still never used the land. It continued to have declarations of ongoing use without any interuption each time the house and land (containing the small parcel) was sold. In 1993 I became the present owner and have all the paperwork for this. I also use the land and wonder after all this time what rights I have over it as it has never been maintained at any time by the owner?

  • Anonymous

    Can you please explain more about "Precriptive title" and squatters rights in Scotland. Many thanks. Chas.

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