How Do Squatter’s Rights Work?

Scott Olson / Staff, Getty Images News
Scott Olson / Staff, Getty Images News

Jason asks, “Most of us have heard the term 'squatter’s rights,' but what rights to squatters actually have?”

In the United States, “squatter’s rights” isn’t a list of specific rights, but refers to a specific form of adverse possession, a legal principle that we inherited from England and has been around, in one form or another, for ages.

Adverse possession allows for real estate to change ownership without payment if someone occupies another person’s property while meeting certain requirements for a set amount of time without the owner getting rid of them. For example, if I build a fence way over my neighbor’s property line and use and maintain the land I’ve fenced off, and my neighbor does nothing about it for a while (exactly how long depends on where we live), I may be able to claim that chunk of his property as my own if he does ever make a fuss. 

The idea behind adverse possession, the California Court of Appeals for the Third District wrote in a 1979 decision, “is basically that land use has historically been favored over disuse, and that therefore he who uses the land is preferred in the law to he who does not, even thought the latter is the rightful owner. Hence our laws of property have sanctioned certain types of otherwise unlawful taking of land belonging to someone else.” The purpose, the Court continues, isn’t “to reward the taker or punish the person dispossessed, but to reduce litigation and preserve the peace by protecting a possession that has been maintained for a statutorily deemed sufficient period of time.”

While the principle is usually used by the courts to resolve property disputes like my hypothetical fence, squatters can also use adverse possession to gain ownership of the property they’re squatting in if they play their cards right. 

Land Grab

Adverse possession statutes vary from state to state, and sometimes within states, but generally speaking, to acquire property by adverse possession a squatter needs to possess the disputed property in a way that is actual, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile and continuous for the statutory period of time. That is, they need to actually occupy and use the property, in opposition of the actual owner’s rights and claims, in an open and visible way that makes it known to the owner that their property is being possessed and prevents others from using or occupying it. All of this has to be done for a set period of time, which varies between jurisdictions. In California, a squatter needs to possess a property for five years, while in New Jersey, they’d have to hang on to it for 30 years.

If the squatter’s possession is interrupted during that period—say, by the actual owner attempting to take possession or the squatter abandoning the property—the continuity of it is broken, and the squatter has to start again with the clock reset at zero. If they manage to meet all those requirements for the full amount of time and not get kicked out, they could claim ownership through adverse possession if any questions about the ownership arise or go before a court. 

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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Grocery Stores vs. Supermarkets: What’s the Difference?

gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images
gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images

These days, people across the country are constantly engaging in regional term debates like soda versus pop and fireflies versus lightning bugs. Since these inconsistencies are so common, you might have thought the only difference between a grocery store and a supermarket was whether the person who mentioned one was from Ohio or Texas. In reality, there are distinctions between the stores themselves.

To start, grocery stores have been around for much longer than supermarkets. Back when every town had a bakery, a butcher shop, a greengrocery, and more, the grocery store offered townspeople an efficient shopping experience with myriad food products in one place. John Stranger, vice president group supervisor of the food-related creative agency EvansHardy+Young, explained to Reader’s Digest that the grocer would usually collect the goods for the patron, too. This process might sound familiar if you’ve watched old films or television shows, in which characters often just hand over their shopping lists to the person behind the counter. While our grocery store runs may not be quite so personal today, the contents of grocery stores remain relatively similar: Food, drinks, and some household products.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, have taken the idea of a one-stop shop to another level, carrying a much more expansive array of foodstuffs as well as home goods, clothing, baby products, and even appliances. This is where it gets a little tricky—because supermarkets carry many of the same products as superstores, the next biggest fish in the food store chain, which are also sometimes referred to as hypermarkets.

According to The Houston Chronicle, supermarkets and superstores both order inventory in bulk and usually belong to large chains, whereas grocery stores order products on an as-needed basis and are often independently owned. Superstores, however, are significantly larger than either grocery stores or supermarkets, and they typically look more like warehouses. It’s not an exact science, and some people might have conflicting opinions about how to categorize specific stores. For example, Walmart has a line of Walmart Neighborhood Markets, which its website describes as “smaller-footprint option[s] for communities in need of a pharmacy, affordable groceries, and merchandise.” They’re not independently owned, but they do sound like grocery stores, especially compared to Walmart’s everything-under-the-sun superstore model.

Knowing the correct store terms might not always matter in casual conversation, but it could affect your credit card rewards earnings. American Express, for example, offers additional rewards on supermarket purchases, and it has a specific list of stores that qualify as supermarkets, including Gristedes, Shoprite, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods. Target and Walmart, on the other hand, are both considered superstores, so you won’t earn bonuses on those purchases.

And, since grocery shopping at any type of store can sometimes seem like a competitive sport, here’s the ideal time to go.

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