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.
Who is Considered a Squatter?
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.
- Many homeless people will attempt to take advantage of squatter’s rights in order to gain ownership of a property without having to pay rent or a mortgage.
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.
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
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 US, there are five distinct legal requirements that the squatter must meet before they can make an adverse possession claim. The occupation must be:
- Open & Notorious
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 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 have to 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 be attempting 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 has to 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 are 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, squatters do not have to pay taxes in order to claim adverse possession. In some states, this is an absolute requirement, but that isn’t the case in Iowa.
However, if the squatter does pay taxes for at least one year (and at least two years have passed since the owner has paid taxes), they can begin an adverse possession claim. They won’t have to wait the required five continuous years.
How to Get Rid of Squatters
While Iowa doesn’t have a specific procedure for getting rid of squatters, they can be removed through standard eviction means. However, is a provision for landowners for disabilities. 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.
Otherwise, you must go through an eviction process to have squatters removed. Iowa recognizes two major reasons for eviction.
For nonpayment of rent, a landlord must give a tenant (squatter) three days’ notice. You must give them an amount to pay so they can stay, and afford them a reasonable time to get the money to you. After these three days are up, the landlord can file an eviction notice. This might be the best option for getting rid of squatters.
Lease violations require a seven-day notice to fix the situation. Since there is likely no lease between the landlord and the squatter, this might not be the best option if you’re trying to get rid of squatters.
Whatever method you choose, the squatter can challenge the eviction if they wish. This probably isn’t going to happen. It may take several weeks for the eviction to finalize, but in the meantime, you cannot do anything that would make the squatter leave.
This includes changing the locks, throwing them out, or turning off the utilities. These motions fall under ‘self-eviction’ and they are illegal. Even after the eviction passes, you must enlist the help of the sheriff (not local law enforcement) to remove the squatter from the premises.
Please note that it’s important that you call the sheriff and not the police. The difference is jurisdictional, but it’s also important. The police can easily remove a criminal trespasser, but they won’t get involved with squatters. The sheriff is better-equipped to help you with squatters and to carry out an eviction after the ruling has been made.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Squatters
- Inspect the property regularly
- Make sure that the property is secured (block all entrances, close all windows, and lock all doors)
- 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 are a landlord’s worst nightmare. Make sure that you arm yourself with the right legal knowledge to prevent someone from making an adverse possession claim on your property.