At one time, a U.S. resident could take possession of a piece of unclaimed land, protected under the Homestead Act of 1862. However, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 abolished that. Under adverse possession laws, though, you may be able to take over an abandoned property, as long as you meet certain qualifications. To claim unclaimed land, you’ll first need to make sure you meet the qualifications, including having occupied it for a minimum time period and being on the property without the owner’s permission. If you qualify, you’ll need to contact an attorney to file a claim through the court system.
Understanding Unclaimed Land
Unlike the early days of land development in this country, every acre of land in the U.S. is now owned by someone. In most cases, ownership goes to a developer, private individual or government entity. Some land is owned by corporations and Native American tribes. In some cases, though, a piece of property has been abandoned, which means you may be able to take possession of it.
Laws on unclaimed property vary from one state to the next. Abandoned land laws fall under something called adverse possession, which states that in certain circumstances, a person can take legal ownership of a piece of land, even if it technically belongs to someone else. You may have heard this referred to as “squatter’s rights.”
Abandoned Land Laws
To take ownership of an abandoned property, a person must meet all of the following four qualifications.
- The takeover must be hostile, which means without the previous owner’s permission.
- The person taking ownership of the property must physically occupy it.
- Said possession must be obvious to anyone watching the property.
- The occupant must have been present on the property for a minimum continuous timeframe.
Each state has its own specific requirements within those general rules. There are additional requirements in some states, including that the new occupant must have paid property taxes. You’ll find some states also ask that you have some sort of document proving ownership of the property, even if that document isn’t legal or accurate.
How to Claim Unclaimed Land
Filing an adverse possession claim can be complicated, so you’ll need to get an attorney to guide you through the process. You’ll file a quiet title action, which will challenge everyone else who has a claim to that land. If the court decides in your favor, the property will be yours in perpetuity.
It's important to note, though, that a ruling in your favor doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be protected as you would have been if you’d bought the property from the previous owner. In other words, if there’s an issue with the property, you won’t necessarily be able to sue the owner over it. A ruling also may not clear up all title issues with the property.
How to Prevent Adverse Possession
Often the concept of adverse possession makes property owners a bit nervous. This is especially true for those who own land they don’t physically occupy, perhaps as an investment. If someone could simply pop a tent on that property and later claim ownership based on that, you could lose your investment overnight.
There are a few things you can do to protect yourself against abandoned land laws, though, the primary of which is to avoid abandoning it. "No trespassing" signs won’t preserve your property rights, but they can deter anyone thinking about making it a home. The most important thing you can do as a property owner is to keep an eye on the land. If you don’t live nearby, pay someone to check in on it every few days or post security cameras that offer oversight of the entire property.
If you do give someone permission to use the land, make sure you outline the agreement in writing to avoid the person meeting the “hostile takeover” provision under the law. In cases where someone has taken up residence without your permission, you should contact the police and, if that doesn’t deter the person, hire a lawyer to have the occupant evicted from the property.
Mining Claims on Property
Valuable minerals are located on government land across the country. The Bureau of Land Management encourages enterprising residents to find and develop minerals in certain areas, but first you’ll need to buy a mining claim on that property. If this claim is granted, you’ll have rights to mine minerals on the property, but this does not give you ownership of the property itself.
Any equipment or structures abandoned on a mining claim become government property. If you want to purchase those items, you can request to purchase them when you buy your mining claim, but the liability transfers to you as the purchaser. You can camp on the land, but if you choose to stay more than 14 days within a 90-day period, you’ll need to be regularly working on mining-related activities.
Buying Mining Claims
The ready availability of mining claims has led to a situation where unscrupulous individuals post BLM mining claims for sale online and bilk innocent consumers out of money. The Bureau of Land Management has issued a caution about BLM mining claims for sale online. To avoid falling victim to a scam, the agency has posted the following guidance:
- The mining claim should have paperwork with clearly demarcated boundaries.
- Anyone posting BLM mining claims for sale should be able to provide buyers with an official BLM claim serial number and documentation that the claim is recorded with local government authorities.
- You can verify all mining claims with LR2000, a reporting system that tracks mining claims across the U.S. You can also verify records by visiting the Bureau of Land Management offices in the state where the property in question is located.
Finding Mining Claims
Before you can file a mining claim for a property, you’ll first need to figure out where you want to mine. There are only 19 states with property open to claims, which narrows it down, and the type of minerals you want to find are likely only within certain states, narrowing it down even further.
Once you’ve identified the areas you want to claim, you’ll need to make sure no one else has a claim on it. If you have enough information, you can check the BLM mining claims database or confirm with the local Bureau of Land Management office. However, you can also look on the property itself. If a claim exists, there should be signage stating that the mining claim is protected, and no prospecting is allowed.
Search Mining Claims Databases
If you’d prefer to check for available land online, you can use the BLM mining claims database. The Case Recordation database has reports on land and mineral use authorizations, while the Mining Claims Recordation database can provide reports on unpatented mining claims on federal lands.
Some information isn’t available through the BLM mining claims database, including case files, deeds and leases. If you’re interested in prospecting in Alaska, the information is not available through LR2000. You’ll need to go to blm.gov/alaska. If you have any questions about the information you see in the database, pick up the phone and call the Bureau of Land Management in that area.
- Thoughtco: There Is No Free or Cheap Government Land
- Bankrate: Can I Take Possession of Abandoned Property?
- NOLO: State-by-State Rules on Adverse Possession
- QUITE | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary
- USDA: Buying a Mining Claim
- Bureau of Land Management: Land & Mineral System Reports
- RareGoldNuggets.com: How to Stake a Mining Claim on Federal Land in 8 Simple Steps
- Bureau of Land Management: About LR2000
- NOLO: Adverse Possession: When Trespassers Become Property Owners
Stephanie Faris has written about finance for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2013. She spent nearly a year as a ghostwriter for a credit card processing service and has ghostwritten about finance for numerous marketing firms and entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared on The Motley Fool, MoneyGeek, Ecommerce Insiders, GoBankingRates, and ThriveBy30.