Finding squatters on your land is one the last things any Iowa landowner wants- but they do have rights, according to the law. Squatting is the unpermitted occupation of someone else's land- and no, it is not automatically classed as illegal trespassing.
Iowa is one of the states that are most favorable towards squatters, so landlords and property owners need to familiarise themselves with the law to avoid a costly loss.
Here is a rundown of squatters' rights in Iowa, the steps you can take to get rid of them, and what you can do to avoid them settling in the first place.
Iowa Squatters' Rights
- Squatters have not committed any crime until they are asked to leave through the proper channels and refuse to comply.
- It takes five years for squatters to earn the right to make an adverse possession claim in Iowa- but they can reduce the time to three years if they pay taxes for a year.
- No color of title is required to make an Iowa adverse possession claim. Even if they have one, it does not speed up the process.
- They can also speed up their right to claim ownership if they live on a property for a year and make substantial improvements.
- Iowa squatters have three days to remove their belongings after a writ of notice is issued before they are forcibly removed.
Anyone who occupies land or property without the legal permission of the rightful owner is considered a squatter in Iowa. People who overstay their lease and refuse to pay rent are holdover tenants- not quite the same as a squatter, but the process to evict them is almost the same.
Squatters vs. Trespassers
As mentioned, squatters- and holdover tenants- are not criminal trespassers at first. You, as the property owner or landlord, have to act to notify them they are not welcome and take the necessary steps to have them removed.
If they stay after the landowners ask them to leave (before filing an eviction lawsuit)- they are trespassing. That is unless they have a valid adverse possession claim that entitles them to appeal the court for legal ownership.
Claiming Legal Ownership
In short, yes- they can- but not overnight. Adverse possession laws are fairly misunderstood around the US- with many believing that simply by moving into a property they have a right to claim. Luckily for landowners, this is not the case.
Each state has its own specification for what qualifies someone to make an adverse possession claim. Many states have the same five elements- including Iowa- but there are a few differences.
The main difference from state to state is how long a person must hold their occupancy without interruption. This is what makes Iowa a popular state for squatters- as it has one of the lowest time requirements.
Adverse Possession Claim
Let's take a closer look at the five pillars of adverse possession. These apply in many states, but we have included the specifics for Iowa law.
The first condition is hostile possession. Depending on the state, there are several definitions accepted to be able to make a hostile claim- and Iowa accepts several. Here are the three definitions of a hostile claim in Iowa.
- Simple occupation: All this means is that a person is occupying another's property. It doesn't specify whether or not they know it belongs to someone else.
- Awareness of trespassing: In this case, it means they are fully aware that they do not have permission to be there. They also realize that they will be trespassing if the owners realize it.
- Good-faith mistake- Lastly, hostile possession can mean that someone genuinely thought they had the right to be there. It could be because they thought the land was theirs or that it was completely abandoned.
Actual possession means living on the property the way they would if they owned it- including maintaining a physical presence and taking good care of the space. In Iowa- unlike other states- making improvements and attempting to beautify the property can actually reduce the time requirements for adverse possession.
If they can prove they have occupied the space for an entire year- and have made significant improvements during that time (with documented proof), they could have grounds to make a claim already. The improvements must be deemed valuable- and they should also have paid the property taxes in full.
Exclusive possession laws are simple: the property cannot be shared with anyone else. If many squatters share one space, none of them can make an adverse possession claim- even if they followed all the other rules.
Open and Notorious
Next, open and notorious possession is an important factor in Iowa adverse possession laws. It means they must live conspicuously- making it obvious to anyone who looks that they are living there.
Doing so gives the rightful owner the chance to spot them and have them removed before they get a chance to claim rights through adverse possession.
If the squatters make any attempts to hide their presence, they cannot make a valid adverse possession claim.
Lastly, squatters must maintain continuous possession of the property- with no interruptions. This is the rule that separates the states- and makes Iowa one of the better states for squatters' rights.
The rules of continuous possession in Iowa are as follows:
- A squatter must live on the property for five years to qualify for adverse possession.
- If they pay property taxes for one year, they can make a claim after three years.
- Squatters who pay property taxes and make significant valuable improvements to the property (more than the minimum required for actual possession) may be able to claim after just one year.
Paying property taxes is not necessarily required to gain legal ownership as a squatter in Iowa- but it can reduce the time it takes to qualify for an adverse possession claim. If the occupant remains for five years on your property, follows all the other rules, and is never officially asked to leave by you as the landlord or owner, they can claim ownership without paying taxes.
A standard eviction is the only way to remove squatters legally in Iowa. There are no special rules- although the basic Iowa eviction laws offer several options that could apply to your squatters.
- Three-day notice to pay
If you have a tenant who stopped paying rent but won't leave, you can treat them as a squatter and issue a three-day payment notice. They can either pay the required rent on time, or you can file an eviction lawsuit.
- No lease or end-of-lease notice
Squatters who move in without a lease- or tenants that had one but it has expired- can be issued a notice to vacate the property. No-lease or weekly lease squatters get a 10-day notice- and monthly, quarterly, or yearly tenants get 30 days.
If they are still there when the notice period expires, they are issued a three-day final notice to quit before the official lawsuit begins.
- Health and safety violations
A seven-day notice- followed by a three-day final notice to quit- is given to any squatter or tenant who violated material health and safety codes. The eviction lawsuit starts if they have not left by the end of the three days.
- Illegal activity
If the squatter is carrying out illegal activity, such as drug use or public nuisance, or firearms, only have a three-day notice to quit before a lawsuit begins.
An Iowa eviction lawsuit can take a few weeks to process. Once it is granted, a writ of notice is sent to the sheriff- who can then intervene and remove the trespassers.
- Visit your property regularly
- Keep the windows and doors locked
- Maintain the exterior appearance
- Pay your property taxes on time
- Ask a neighbor to check in from time to time
- Put up no trespassing signs
- Act quickly if you spot something suspicious
- Keep the amenities turned off when the property is vacant
- Arrange repairs quickly
- Rent your property through a professional property management company
- Put up a fence or boundary
Squatters' right to make an adverse possession claim is a real property worry for absent owners- but if you take basic steps to look after your land and buildings, it should not be a problem.
Time is of the essence- since squatters can gain the right to make a claim quite quickly. Protect your property, keep it secure, and check up on it regularly. If you treat your property properly and maintain it as you should, nobody else has the chance to, making it much harder for them to make a claim.
Iowa property owners and landlords have many things to think about. Downloading all the forms and documents you need for legal processes and landlord-tenant interactions is a great first step to staying organized and in control.
Who can legally remove squatters in Iowa?
Only the sheriff can remove squatters. Iowa- and most other states- do not permit owners to forcibly remove unwanted occupants- they have to follow the correct procedures.
Can a squatter claim adverse possession of a property if the owner pays property taxes?
They can still make a claim, but they are less likely to win if the rightful owner is still actively involved in the maintenance of the property. That said, even if you pay your taxes but ignore the physical property for five years- and somebody squats during that time, you could still be at risk.
Is color of title required in Iowa adverse possession claims?
Some states require additional information to gain legal title- something called color of title. Color of title just means the person has something that suggests they believe they are the owner- or at least have the right to remain on the property.
It could be a title deed with an error or missing information or any other proof that suggests they could have a rightful claim.
This is not required in Iowa.
What should landlords do with personal belongings left behind by squatters?
After the final written notice of eviction is presented to the squatters, they have three days to remove their personal belongings and vacate the premises. If they do not- the owner can remove their property and dispose of it. It is generally considered good practice to make a reasonable attempt to contact the squatter and allow them to collect it- but it is not required under Iowa law.