Can you get a house for free? (© Kenneth Robinson in front of the house he adversely possessed. Bill Castleman/CastleHill PhotoVideo)

Kenneth Robinson in front of the house he adversely possessed. © Bill Castleman/CastleHill PhotoVideo

Kenneth Robinson lives in a $330,000 home in an upscale neighborhood in Flower Mound, Texas. He didn't buy the home, but he does claim ownership of it.

Robinson moved into the home in June after doing some research and determining that it was abandoned. Some call him a squatter, but he says a law called adverse possession makes him the owner.

In this installment of "Real Estate on the Cheap," we'll look at what appears to be the biggest real-estate bargain possible: a free house. What is adverse possession and can this tactic really score someone a house?

We'll also talk to a couple of agents in the Portland, Ore., area to find out what bargains can be had in the City of Roses. 

A fine line between squatting and owning?
Robinson's neighbors are outraged by his claims of ownership and say he's trespassing and should be removed by the police. Police say homeownership is a civil matter.

Slide show:  The cheapest house in town

Although Robinson is attempting to apply adverse possession in an unusual way, there is some legal basis to his assertions, though legal experts say it's unlikely that he will meet all of the requirements to obtain the property by adverse possession.

So what are those requirements? Every state has slightly different rules, but they all contain four basics. The occupation must be:

1. Hostile (adverse). In this case, hostile doesn't mean antagonistic or confrontational. The traditional legal definition is simply that the trespasser knowingly trespassed. Many states no longer even require that a trespasser know the land belongs to someone else and define "hostile" as mere occupation of the land. A few states also have a "good faith mistake" rule, which means the occupant thought he had a right to be on the land, for example because of an incorrect deed or inaccurately drawn boundary lines.

Marc Roark, assistant law professor at the University of La Verne, a private university near Los Angeles, teaches his students about adverse possession. He helps them understand the "hostile" requirement with a scenario in which someone is occupying property and the owner says, "You should leave, but I'll let you stay." In that situation, there is no longer hostility because the trespasser is there with the owner's permission. In Robinson's case, the owner is nowhere to be found.

2. Actual. This means the trespasser must live on the property and treat it as if it were his own. This requirement can be met by making improvements to the property and doing basic upkeep as an owner would: mowing the lawn, repairing a fence, etc. Robinson has been living in the Flower Mound home since June.

3. Open and notorious. It must be obvious that the trespasser is on the land. With all the publicity Robinson's case has gotten, it's clear he is living in the home.

4. Exclusive and continuous. This means that the individual must occupy the land exclusively without interruption for a period of time that varies by state and situation. In Robinson's case, Texas lawyer David Weatherbie says he would have to live in the home for 10 years before he could succeed at adverse possession.

Weatherbie and other legal experts say they doubt that will happen. What could happen is a bank with a claim to the property could start foreclosure proceedings, says Richard Vetstein, a Massachusetts lawyer who co-authors the "Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog." 

"They could go in to do inspections and all that," he says. "That could certainly stop the clock from running."

Of course, the original owner could always show up. But Robinson has said publicly that he doesn't think the owner or a bank will go to the trouble or the expense of kicking him out.

Should you try this at (your neighbor's) home?
Roark calls the Robinson case "fascinating and ingenious" and says it brings attention to the ancillary areas that relate to the mortgage crisis.

"It's probably not very likely that he is going to be allowed to occupy this over the 10 years without the mortgage company or someone else physically evicting him," he says. But Roark says the publicity in this case "certainly warrants the suggestion that adverse possession could take place."

In the Texas case, the problem is time. Ten years is a long time to live somewhere without someone raising a fuss. The requirement in some states calls for as many as 30 years. But Roark says in some jurisdictions, the time period is as low as three years. "Then you're far more likely to have success in a case like this," he says.

Roark doesn't recommend that others try this tactic, and neither do Weatherbie and Vetstein. Adverse possession is usually used to settle cases dealing with boundary lines or to assign property rights when no one is sure of ownership.

As Vetstein says on his blog: "The classic example of adverse possession is a neighbor who puts up a fence or paves a driveway several feet over their neighbor's property line, without permission, and this 'adverse possession' continues without objection for 20 consecutive years. Despite the fact that the neighbor's fence or driveway encroaches the property line, under the adverse possession doctrine, the property owner may lose title to the disputed strip of land by not doing, saying or even knowing anything about it."

None of these legal experts has seen adverse possession used successfully to get a house, and trespassing is far more likely to send you to jail.  "(Robinson is) encouraging people to undertake a fairly dangerous course of action," Weatherbie says. "He made the headlines, which I think is primarily what he wanted to accomplish. I wouldn't encourage people to try this. It's not something that's going to work."

But the case is a reminder of what Roark says is the basic policy of adverse possession: Land that's not used doesn't benefit society as a whole. And Roark acknowledges a possible benefit to all the publicity around Robinson's case. "In some ways, his adverse possession claim brings attention to the idea that mortgage companies should do things with property before they reach this point of sitting vacant for long periods of time," he says. "It can, at the end of the day, be something that uses the law to shape social policy over time."

Maybe what a city like Detroit — with so many boarded-up and abandoned homes — needs, he says, is lots of adverse possessors who can turn those properties from blighted into nice places where people would want to live.