Virginia Squatters’ Rights & Adverse Possession Laws - 2024

Introduction to Squatters’ Rights in Virginia

Squatters’ rights, also known as adverse possession, refer to the concept that a person can gain legal ownership of a property they do not have title to if they openly occupy it without the true owner's permission for a certain period of time. This essentially allows someone to claim ownership of a property they are "squatting" on if the legal property owner does not take action to remove them.

In Virginia, there are specific laws regarding squatters’ rights and adverse possession claims. The state has a statute that allows squatters to gain legal ownership of a property if they maintain open, continuous possession for 15 years. This means that if someone occupies an abandoned or vacant property without the owner's permission for over 15 years, they may be able to legally claim rights to the property through adverse possession.

So in essence, squatters’ rights in Virginia allow someone to legally gain ownership of a property they do not hold title to by occupying it exclusively without the legal owner's consent for a period of 15 continuous years. This can happen with abandoned properties, land with unclear or disputed title claims, or properties where the owner has neglected their duties. However, the squatter must meet specific requirements and time periods defined in Virginia adverse possession laws in order to make a legal claim.

Requirements for Adverse Possession in Virginia

To successfully claim adverse possession in Virginia, a squatter must meet several requirements as outlined in the state's adverse possession laws. The key requirements are:

Occupying the property for 15+ years

The squatter must maintain actual, exclusive, continuous possession of the property for at least 15 years. Temporary absence from the land will not disrupt the possession, but the squatter must occupy the land for most of the 15 years.  

Actual possession

The squatter must physically occupy and use the land as if it was their own. Merely walking across or camping occasionally on the land does not constitute actual possession.

Hostile possession

The possession must be hostile, meaning it is done without the owner's permission. The squatter must occupy the land openly and adversely to the rights of the true owner.

Exclusive possession

The squatter's possession cannot be shared with strangers, the owner, or others. Only the adverse possessor is claiming ownership rights.

Visible possession

It must be obvious to anyone that the squatter is occupying and using the land exclusively. They cannot hide their occupancy but must make it known.

Continuous possession

The squatter's occupancy cannot be interrupted for long periods. They must reside on the property regularly without extended absences. Periodic, sporadic uses of the land will not qualify.

The squatter must meet all of these adverse possession requirements continuously for the entire 15-year period to successfully claim legal ownership of the property. If the hostile occupation gets disrupted, the clock resets.

Does the Squatter Need Color of Title?

Color of title refers to having documentation that appears to give you ownership of a property, even if it is flawed or invalid. This could include deeds, wills, or other legal documents that seem to grant title to the property to the adverse possessor. 

In Virginia, color of title is not an absolute requirement to make an adverse possession claim. However, having color of title can strengthen a claim by showing that the squatter had a reasonable and legitimate belief that they were the rightful owner of the property. It helps demonstrate their continuous possession was under a claim of right.

If the squatter occupies the land for the statutory period of 15 years believing they have proper legal title, then their possession is considered under claim of right or "color of title." Even without documentation, openly occupying the land as an owner would qualify as color of title. But having written evidence helps prove the squatter's intent and belief that they had lawful claim to the property.

So while color of title is not mandatory, it can make it much easier for a squatter to establish a valid claim of adverse possession in Virginia. It provides critical evidence that their occupation was continuous, exclusive, open and notorious, hostile to the true owner, and under an asserted legal right.

Steps for Gaining Ownership Through Adverse Possession

In order to successfully gain ownership of a property through adverse possession in Virginia, the squatter must meet several requirements over the statutory period of 15 years:

Physically Occupying the Property

The squatter must maintain actual, continuous, hostile, exclusive, visible, and notorious possession of the property for the entire 15-year period. This means physically living on or actively using the land as if they were the true owner. Merely visiting or storing belongings on the property does not qualify. The occupation must be obvious to indicate the squatter's claim of ownership.

Openly Claiming Ownership  

The squatter must openly communicate that they believe they have a right to possess the land. This claim of ownership must be obvious to the legal owner and the public. Putting up no trespassing signs, making improvements, paying taxes, and other actions can demonstrate an open claim. The squatter's occupation cannot be hidden or sporadic.

Paying Property Taxes

Paying property taxes on the land for the full 15-year statutory period can help validate the squatter's continuous possession and claim of ownership. While tax payment strengthens an adverse possession claim, it is not an absolute requirement in Virginia.

Maintaining/Improving the Property

The squatter should maintain the land and make improvements like buildings, fencing, gardens, trails, drainage systems, etc. This demonstrates long-term, active occupation and investment into the property. Improvements and maintenance help prove the squatter acted as the true owner.

If the squatter can prove they met all legal requirements for the entire 15-year period, they may be able to successfully claim adverse possession and legal ownership. The squatter should seek legal advice to file the appropriate lawsuit requesting title to the property.

Removing Squatters From Your Property 

If you find squatters occupying your property in Virginia, you have legal recourse to remove them. Here are the steps:

Serve Them an Eviction Notice

The first step is to formally demand they leave the premises. Give them written notice that they are trespassing and must vacate the property within 30 days. Send this notice by certified mail so you have proof it was delivered.

File a Lawsuit to Evict

If the squatters do not leave after receiving notice to vacate, you can take legal action by filing a lawsuit to evict them in your local county court. You will have to provide evidence like photos showing their unauthorized occupation.

Obtain a Court Order

The court will schedule a hearing and issue an order directing the squatters to vacate by a certain date. If they do not comply, the sheriff can physically remove them and their belongings from the property. 

Use Reasonable Force

Virginia law allows reasonable force to remove unwanted persons from private property. While violence should always be avoided, sheriffs can physically eject defiant squatters if the court has issued an eviction order.

The sooner you take legal steps to remove unauthorized occupants, the better. Allowing squatters to remain too long can give the appearance you have surrendered possession, which can undermine future eviction efforts. Consulting a real estate attorney is advisable as you start the eviction process.

Preventing Squatters in Virginia  

If you want to avoid having squatters take over your property in Virginia, there are several preventative measures you can take:

Conduct Regular Property Inspections

  • Walk the full perimeter of your property at least once per month, and inspect all entrances, windows, and exterior areas for any signs of trespassing or breaking and entering. Look for cut locks, damaged windows, debris, belongings, or any other indications that someone has been on your property without permission.

Post “No Trespassing” Signs

  • Place visible “No Trespassing” or “Private Property” signs around the borders of your land. These signs serve as legal notice that any entry onto the property is prohibited without your permission. Make sure the signs comply with any local regulations regarding size, wording, or placement.

Install Security Systems

  • Deter squatters by installing security cameras, motion-sensor lighting, and fencing. Security cameras provide video evidence of any trespassers, while lighting and fencing make it more difficult to unlawfully access the property. You may also consider a monitored security system.

Have Neighbors Monitor for Activity

  • The more eyes on your property, the better. Ask neighbors to alert you if they notice anyone entering or living on your property when you're away. Offer to do the same for their vacant homes or land.

Taking these proactive measures will discourage squatters from attempting to take up residence on your property. But you need to remain vigilant through consistent monitoring and maintenance. Don't give squatters any opportunity to slip through the cracks and make an adverse possession claim.

Abandoned vs Unoccupied Properties 

In Virginia, there is an important distinction between abandoned and unoccupied properties when it comes to adverse possession claims. 

An abandoned property is one where the legal owner has completely given up any rights to or interests in the property. They have vacated the property and do not intend to return, nor do they pay property taxes or make any effort to maintain or supervise the land.

A squatter can make a claim for adverse possession on an abandoned property in Virginia after 15 years of continuous, open and exclusive possession. Since the owner has relinquished all rights to the land, the squatter's continuous occupation essentially allows them to take over ownership.

However, adverse possession claims do not apply to unoccupied properties that still have an owner. An unoccupied property still has a legal owner who intends to maintain their property rights and interests. Even if the owner is not physically present on the land, they still pay taxes, make occasional inspections, and do not intend to surrender ownership. 

The owner of an unoccupied property can take legal action to evict squatters at any time. The squatter cannot make an adverse possession claim on an unoccupied property since the owner has not relinquished their rights and still maintains interest in the land.

The key factor is the owner's intent. If the owner has clearly abandoned the property with no intention of return, then adverse possession may apply after 15 continuous years of occupation. If the owner maintains interest in the property but is simply not present, then squatters have no path to legal ownership.

Commercial vs Residential Properties

When it comes to adverse possession claims in Virginia, there are some key differences between commercial and residential properties that squatters should be aware of. 

In general, it is much more difficult for a squatter to successfully claim adverse possession for a commercial property compared to a residential property. There are a few reasons for this:

More resources to monitor commercial properties

Companies and commercial landlords often have more resources to regularly monitor and inspect their properties compared to individual homeowners. This makes it harder for a squatter to occupy a commercial space without being detected early on.

Commercial spaces usually leased, not abandoned

Unlike residential homes that may sit vacant, commercial spaces are more often leased out even when not in active use. Even if the space appears abandoned, there is likely an existing tenant lease that would supersede a squatter's claim of ownership.  

Complex ownership structures

Commercial properties often have more complex ownership structures like multiple investors or parent companies. This makes it much harder to establish that the squatter occupied the property for the required statutory period without permission.

Non-residential use weakens claim

To adversely possess a property, the squatter must reside on the land as if it were their own permanent home. Judges are less likely to believe commercial spaces like storefronts, warehouses, or office buildings serve as a true residence.

So while residential homes, especially vacant or abandoned ones, are vulnerable to adverse possession claims, squatters will have an uphill legal battle trying to claim ownership of commercial spaces that appear disused. The continuous monitoring, existing leases, and non-residential nature of commercial properties create major hurdles for squatters attempting to take ownership through squatter's rights laws in Virginia.

Adverse Possession Case Examples

Adverse possession cases can vary greatly depending on the specific circumstances in Virginia. Here are some real-life examples of adverse possession claims in the state:

  • In 2017, a man was awarded ownership of a property in Hampton, VA that he had occupied without permission for over 20 years. The original owner had abandoned the home in the 1990s, and the squatter maintained the property, paid utilities, and made repairs over two decades believing he was the rightful owner. After extensive litigation, the court finally granted him title to the property under adverse possession laws.
  • In Richmond, a homeowner brought a claim against their neighbor over a strip of land between their two properties that the neighbor had been occupying. The neighbor had clearly marked the land as theirs, installed a shed, and maintained the area for over 10 years. The court found this fulfilled the requirements for adverse possession since the occupation was open, continuous, and exceeded the statutory period.  
  • A particularly contentious case occurred in Arlington in the 2000s between two neighbors disputing ownership of a driveway between their properties. Both parties believed they had inherited ownership rights from previous owners. After reviewing old maps and surveys, it was found one neighbor's predecessor had adversely possessed the land before selling it. This claim was upheld, granting that owner rights to the driveway.
  • In Roanoke, squatters began occupying a long-abandoned warehouse downtown in the 1990s. The original owner made no effort to oust the squatters or reclaim the property for over 20 years. In 2016, the squatters filed a lawsuit seeking ownership under adverse possession laws. The court agreed their occupation had been open, continuous, and uninterrupted for the required period.
  • A landlord in Virginia Beach successfully gained ownership of a tenant's condo through adverse possession in the 2010s. After the owner failed to pay rent or property taxes for over 15 years, the landlord paid the back taxes and maintained sole occupancy of the unit. The court found the landlord's actions established continuous, uninterrupted possession for the statutory period.


In conclusion, squatters in Virginia can gain legal ownership of property through adverse possession after occupying the land continuously for 15 years. The key requirements are actual occupation, hostile possession, exclusivity, openness/visibility, continuity for the statutory period, and making a claim of right/ownership.  

Homeowners have legal options for removing squatters like serving eviction notices or filing trespassing lawsuits. But prevention is the best approach, through regular inspections, no trespassing signs, security systems, and vigilant neighbors. Abandoned buildings are prime targets for squatters so keep a close eye on vacant properties.  

The scenario changes when a landlord-tenant relationship is established, even informally. Squatters cannot make an adverse possession claim on rental property in most cases. Commercial properties also receive additional legal protections against squatters.

Safeguarding property rights is an essential duty for all landowners. Do not allow squatters to quietly take what is rightfully yours. Be proactive in protecting your land through both preventative measures and swift legal action. With a watchful eye and the full force of the law on your side, you can defend your property from unlawful occupation.

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