Land Grab

Zach Blattner

WHEN WE MAKE investment mistakes, often bad advice is to blame. Someone recommends a stock or annuity or no-risk rental property, and we’re so tantalized by the upside that we completely miss the pitfalls. Sound familiar? As a counterpoint to this common trope, I wanted to share my best investment—one I never would have made if I hadn’t listened to those around me.

Before I officially closed on my house in Philadelphia, my parents drove by, so they could see it. My Dad’s first words were, “You should buy that vacant lot next door.” I quickly assured my Dad that the corner lot, filled with trash, wasn’t for sale. In the coming weeks, he kept asking me about it and I eventually checked the public record to appease him. I learned that the lot was owned by a company, it didn’t appear delinquent and it was zoned for building. This convinced me that buying it wasn’t an option, and I thought that put the matter to rest.

Eighteen months later, my friend Theo was visiting. We were standing on my back deck, looking at the trash and weeds in the lot. Theo was in his second year of law school and had just learned about Adverse Possession, a rarely used legal procedure sometimes known as “Squatter’s Rights,” whereby an individual can claim ownership of land if he has “continuous, hostile, open and notorious” possession for a set period of time—21 years in Pennsylvania. Usually, this law is invoked when contesting small property boundaries—think of a stone wall separating two homes—or in rural areas with large swaths of untouched property. Theo suggested I might be able to use Adverse Possession law to claim ownership of the lot. This struck me as unlikely.

Theo and my Dad continued pestering me about the lot, leading me to do some initial research into the company on record. I tried calling, but could find no number listed. I sent mail to the address on file with the city and it was returned to me. Eventually, through online research, I learned that the company had once produced envelopes and owned various lots in the neighborhood. They had gone out of business in the 1970s and this plot of land was the only piece that remained in the company’s name.

As I shared my findings with Theo, he grew convinced that I had a case. He connected me with a law professor, who told me the first action I needed to take was to fence the land off, securing my claim to “hostile and open” possession. I installed a cheap chain link fence and contacted a law firm that specialized in real estate.

From there, I worked with a lawyer for over a year, investing about $10,000 in legal fees, as we built a viable but challenging case. I was required to use various means and methods to contact the owner, including running newspapers ads and visiting their address of record. In the end, the outcome hinged on whether or not the company appeared in court. If they appeared and contested my claim, I would likely lose. If no one showed up, I’d win. On the day of the hearing, I waited anxiously to hear back from my lawyer. The outcome: The company did not appear and the court granted a default judgment, where I won free and clear title of the land.

Over the last four years, I’ve used my lot as a parking space, garden and extended patio for my small row home. Now, as I transition out of Philly and my neighborhood continues to gentrify, developers are making offers that are nine to 10 times what I paid in legal fees to obtain the land. How can I show my gratitude to Theo and my Dad? As a first step, I figure I’ll send them the link to this article.

Zach Blattner’s previous articles include Five Trip Tips and Zeroing In. Zach is a former teacher and school leader who now teaches teachers across the Philly/Camden region as a faculty member at Relay GSE. He is a self-taught finance nerd who dispenses advice to his wife, friends, family and anyone else willing to listen.

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