Squatting is when a person finds an abandoned or vacant property and moves in without discussing it with the property owner. It sounds like breaking and entering – except sometimes it is legal.
Quick Facts for Iowa
- How to Get Rid of Squatters: Standard eviction process
- Required Time of Occupation: 5 years; 3 years if property taxes are paid for 1 year
- Color of Title: Not required
- Property Taxes: Not required, but speeds up claim if owner has not paid for 2 years
Who is Considered a Squatter in Iowa?
A squatter is someone who occupies an abandoned, foreclosed, or otherwise unoccupied building or area of land without lawful permission. They do not own or rent the property. Despite this, it’s legal and more common than you’d think to find squatters in the United States.
Isn’t That Trespassing?
Squatting is not necessarily trespassing. While trespassing is a criminal offense, squatting is usually a civil matter. However, squatting may be treated as a criminal behavior if the landlord or property owner establishes that the individual in question is unwelcome.
Keep the following in mind:
- Squatters or trespassers might falsely claim that they have a right to be on the property. They might produce false or fraudulent documents to the owner or to law enforcement. This is illegal.
- Squatters do have rights, but to gain them they must fulfill the requirements for adverse possession. If they don’t, they can be arrested as criminal trespassers.
- Squatters can be strangers or even your neighbors who want to take over the title of land.
There are exceptions to the rule:
- If a person beautifies the property (by planting flowers, removing debris, or doing regular maintenance), they could possibly be able to avoid prosecution for trespassing.
- In the case of an emergency, someone who accesses the property without permission may be exempt from trespassing.
- The property must not be in use for a squatter to begin the process of an adverse possession claim.
What About Holdover Tenants?
Holdover tenants are sometimes referred to as tenants at sufferance. These tenants choose to remain on a property after their lease has ended. In this situation, the tenant is responsible for continuing to pay the rent at the existing rate and terms. The landlord can accept the rent without worrying about the legality of the occupancy.
If the landlord continues to accept the rent, the tenant becomes a ‘tenant at will’. The landlord can evict them at any time without notice, as they are only on the property ‘at the will’ of the landlord.
Read more about tenants at will here.
If a holdover tenant receives a notice to quit (or move out) and refuses to leave, they will be subject to a lawsuit for unlawful detainer. A holdover tenant will not be able to claim adverse possession if they have been told to leave. They then become a criminal trespasser.
Understanding Adverse Possession in Iowa
A squatter can claim rights to a property after a certain time residing there. In Iowa, it takes 5 years of continuous occupation for a squatter to make an adverse possession claim (Iowa Code § 560.1, et seq). When a squatter claims adverse possession, they can gain legal ownership of the property. At this point, the squatter is no longer a criminal trespasser and has lawful permission to remain on the property.
In the U.S., there are five distinct legal requirements that the squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Hostile – without permission and against the right of the true owner.
- Actual – exercising control over the real property.
- Open & Notorious – using the property as the owner would and not hiding his/her occupancy.
- Exclusive – in the possession of the individual occupying the real property alone.
- Continuous – staying on the property for 5 years.
If these five requirements are not fulfilled by the squatter, they do not have grounds for adverse possession. Let’s take a look at what each of these terms means.
“Hostile” doesn’t mean dangerous or violent. In the legal sense, “hostile” can have three different definitions:
- Simple Occupation. This rule defines hostile as the mere occupation of the land. The trespasser doesn’t have to know that the land belongs to someone else. This rule is followed by most states today.
- Awareness of Trespassing. This rule requires that the trespasser is aware that his or her use of the property is trespassing. They know that they have no legal right to be on the property.
- Good Faith Mistake. This requires the trespasser to have made an innocent good faith mistake in occupying the property in the first place. This means that they might be relying on an invalid or incorrect deed. In other words, the squatter is using the property “in good faith” and is unaware of the property’s current legal status.
Actual possession requires that the squatter is physically present on the property and treat it like they are an owner. This can be established by the squatter’s improvements, and their effort to maintain the property. As mentioned above, the beautification of the premises would be an example of actual possession of the land.
In Iowa specifically, making improvements to the property can speed up an adverse possession case. If a squatter makes valuable improvements to a property and has lived there for more than 1 year, they have grounds to make an adverse possession claim (Iowa Code § 560.1, et seq).
Open & Notorious Possession
“Open & Notorious” means that the possession of the property must be obvious to anyone. Even a landowner who makes a reasonable effort to investigate should be able to tell that someone is squatting on the property. The squatter must not attempt to hide that they live there.
The trespasser must possess the land exclusively. They cannot share occupation with strangers, other squatters, the owner, or other tenants.
The squatter must reside on the property for an uninterrupted amount of time. The trespasser cannot give up the use of the property, return to it weeks or months later, and then attempt to use that time towards their continuous possession time period. In Iowa, 5 years of continuous possession is required for adverse possession.
Color of Title
You have probably come across the term “color of title” in your research into squatter’s rights. “Color of title” only means that the ownership of the land is not ‘regular’. The owners might not have one or more of the proper legal documents, or the property may not be properly registered.
A squatter who has successfully completed an adverse possession claim can claim color of title. Some states have a specific color of title provision, but Iowa isn’t one of them. Squatters who have color of title over a property will still need to wait for the entire 5 years of continuous occupation unless they make valuable improvements or pay property taxes.
Do Squatters Have to Pay Property Taxes in Iowa?
In Iowa, squatters do not have to pay taxes to claim adverse possession. However, if the squatter does pay taxes for at least one year and the true owner has been delinquent on paying property taxes for two years the squatter can begin an adverse possession claim after one year of occupancy instead of the required five continuous years.
How to Get Rid of Squatters in Iowa
While Iowa doesn’t have a specific procedure for getting rid of squatters, they can be removed through standard eviction means. Iowa recognizes several major reasons for eviction.
3-Day Notice to Pay – For nonpayment of rent, a true owner must give the squatter three days’ notice. After these three days are up, the owner can file an eviction notice.
No Lease/End of Lease – If the tenant is holding over and staying in the rental unit after the lease term has expired or there was no lease to begin with, the owner may issue a notice to quit. The notice period depends on the type of tenancy. Owners shall issue a 10-Day Notice to Quit for week-to-week tenancies, 30-Day Notice to Quit for month-to-month (or longer) and if the squatter remains on the property after the notice period, the owner must issue another 3-Day Notice to Quit before beginning the eviction process.
Material Health/Safety Violations – If the squatter is violating a health, building, safety or housing code the owner may issue a 7-Day Notice to Comply. If the squatter hasn’t corrected the issue the owner must provide a 3-Day Notice to Quit before the eviction process.
Illegal Activity – Squatters who are involved with illegal activity such as drugs, illegal firearms, assault, etc. may be issued a 3-Day Notice to Quit. Once that notice period has expired the owner may begin the eviction process.
Read more about evictions in Iowa here and download our FREE eviction notice form template.
Additionally, it is important to note that there if a landowner has a legal ‘disability’ (they are a minor, legally incompetent, or imprisoned), they have one year after their disability is lifted (they come of age, regain sanity, or are released from prison) to reclaim their land.
It may take several weeks for the eviction to finalize. It is important to note that self-evictions are illegal. This includes changing the locks, throwing them out, or turning off the utilities. If the eviction is granted, a Writ of Execution is issued and shall be delivered to the squatter by a law enforcement officer (usually a sheriff). The Writ of Execution allows 3 days for the squatter to remove their possessions before a law enforcement officer forcibly removes them.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters in Iowa
- Inspect the property regularly.
- Make sure that the property is secured (block all entrances, close all windows, and lock all doors).
- Pay property taxes in a timely manner.
- Put up “No Trespassing” signs on the property, especially if it is currently unoccupied.
- As soon as you realize that squatters are present, serve written notice.
- Offer to rent the property to the squatters.
- Call the sheriff (not the local police) to remove squatters from the premises if they do not leave.
- Hire a lawyer. In some cases, you might have to file a lawsuit to remove the squatter from your property. Having legal counsel can make all the difference.
Squatters have different rights in different states. Make sure you refer to Iowa Code §560.1 -560.7 for more information.