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How Do Squatter’s Rights Work?

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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. 

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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