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Is It Legal to Go Into Abandoned Buildings?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 05, 2015 9:36 AM

Whether you're wondering what happened to the previous owners or what the next ones will do with the property, there's always an intrigue with abandoned buildings. And the ones with spooky histories or interesting architecture always seem to invite the adventurous to have a look around inside. But is it legal to enter an abandoned building?

It may look like no one will care, but there are quite a few laws covering this kind of urban exploration. Here's a peek inside:

Trespass

Sure, that building looks abandoned, but chances are someone owns it, and you're trespassing if you go inside. State laws on trespassing may vary, but it generally is defined as entering or using property without the owner's permission. Not only is this a criminal offense, but you could be sued in civil court as well.

Criminal trespass, or entering the property knowing it's illegal, only increases the potential penalties. And this applies to abandoned homes as well. (Just ask Vanilla Ice.) Finally, if you're injured in the abandoned building, you should know that trespassers have fewer rights when it comes to premises liability.

Squatters and Adverse Possession

While trespassers have few, if any, rights while they're trespassing, they could gain some if they trespass long enough. There is a legal concept known as adverse possession whereby a trespasser can acquire legal title to property if they occupy the property for a certain amount of time and meet a few other conditions.

The specific requirements for adverse possession can vary depending on state law, but a few elements of adverse possession are universal. For a successful adverse possession claim, there must be:

  • Actual Possession: You must be physically present on the land, treating it as your own;
  • Exclusive and Continuous Possession: You can't share possession with others, and you must be in possession of the land for an uninterrupted period of time;
  • A "Hostile" Claim: You must either make an honest mistake (like relying on an incorrect deed), merely occupy the land (with or without knowledge that it is private property), or be aware that you are trespassing; and
  • Open and Notorious Possession: Your act of trespassing cannot be secret.

But be warned -- most property owners, even abandoned building owners, don't take too kindly to squatters. If you're facing civil or criminal charges based on entering an abandoned building, you'll probably want the advice of an experienced attorney near you.

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