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Heather Jones

In Iowa, squatter rights, or adverse possession, allow individuals to claim ownership of property after meeting specific criteria over a continuous five-year period. This guide explains the legal requirements for squatters to assert ownership and provides advice for property owners on protecting their rights against adverse possession claims. Whether facing squatters or curious about the law, this article offers concise insights into navigating squatter rights in Iowa.

You may be asking like how can someone have property rights over land they have never purchased? If you are the owner of Iowa real estate and want to know more about squatters and how to deal with them, this article is for you. Read on to learn more about squatter’s rights in Iowa and how you can protect your property.  

What Is A Squatter?    

A squatter is someone or a group of people occupying a home you own illegally. Squatters often enter the empty home, change the locks and begin living on the property as if they own it. Sometimes, a stranger or group of strangers breaks in and takes over the property. A lot of the time, squatters can be former tenants who never left or even family members who somehow feel entitled to be in the property, especially if it is an old family home that they have spent time at before. The unifying factor here is that, regardless of where they came from, the squatters are there unlawfully.    

Adverse Possession or Criminal Trespass?   

When a squatter enters a property unlawfully, there are two possible ways to deal with them, depending on what the squatter claims.  

Criminal Trespass

If it is just an issue of criminal trespass, you can call the police and have the squatter or squatters removed. In order for a criminal trespass approach to work, you have to catch them early before they have had the opportunity to change anything on the property or obtain any paperwork that says they are there lawfully. This is why it is crucial to keep an eye on any property you own that has been sitting empty for some time. If you are between renters or planning to sell and the house is only open for showings, you should check in on the property every few days. If you live out of state, hire someone to check for you and send you a video with the date. A case for criminal trespass is easier to prove if you can show that the squatters were only on the property for a day or two and certainly were not invited or allowed to be there by the property owner. If you are trying to rent out the property, it is vital to be present or have a property manager who checks in. If you are trying to sell the property, discuss the issue of what steps the realtor will take to keep the property secure and safe from potential squatters. In others, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you take the necessary precautions, you will most likely be able to have the squatters ejected for criminal trespass. If you don’t, you will have to deal with the squatters in civil court.  

suburban home

Adverse Possession

This is the law that squatters use to try and take over a property or a piece of land. Adverse possession is when a party starts using land they do not own as their own, it must be open and notorious for a certain period of time, and the owner does not know and has not given the party permission to be there. Each state has its own statutory period of time the adverse possessor must be on the land before acquiring the right to the title. Yes, you read that correctly. If a party takes over your property and meets the elements and time requirements for adverse possession, they can get legal title to the property. Let’s go through each element of the Iowa adverse possession statute in order to break it down clearly:  

In Iowa, a squatter only needs five years to be able to claim title via adverse possession, but they must meet all the elements required.    

  1. The adverse possession must be hostile. What hostile means in this context is that the owner does not know or did not give permission, and it is not a case where the squatter has a good faith belief that they are legally entitled to be there.  
  1. The adverse possession must be actual, which means that the squatter must be present on the property and treating the property as their own for the entire five years. For example, the squatter could put up a fence, paint the building, and have a new driveway laid. The squatter must treat the property as if they are the lawful owner.  
  1. The adverse possession must be open and notorious. What that means here is that it must be out in the open, where anyone who chooses to do a casual inspection would notice that the squatter was there. For example, if the squatter were only living in the basement of the building and only came out after dark when no one was around, they would have trouble meeting the open and notorious requirement to gain a legal title.  
  1. The adverse possession must be exclusive. What that means is that the squatter does not share the property with anyone else. An example of this might be what is referred to as a flop house, where many people might spend the night in a vacant building illegally and on a regular basis, but none of them would be able to meet the requirement of exclusivity and be able to gain legal title to the property.   
  1. The adverse possession must be continuous for the statutory period. What that means is that the squatter must be doing all of the above-listed actions for five continuous years. If the squatter leaves, they will not be able to meet the continuity requirement and gain a legal title. An example of this would be if the squatter left for six months to travel, and the owner got proof of that, the squatter could not come back and claim they had continuous adverse possession.  

If the squatter can meet all elements for the statutory period, they could gain legal title to the property in Iowa.  For a more in depth break down of adverse possession read our article, Adverse Possession In Iowa

How Do I Get Rid of a Squatter?  

So, we have already discussed criminal trespass and the need to actively monitor any real property you own with reasonable security and regular checks on the property. The first step is to report any criminal trespass to the police. You can either get the trespassers removed or at least establish an independent record that the squatters are not supposed to be there.  

Things can get really tricky after reporting the criminal trespass to the police. It is vital that you have the assistance of an experienced Iowa attorney in order to ensure that you are taking the proper steps that the law requires. Failure to observe the proper legal steps could result in the squatter winning the right to claim legal title to the property.    

Is The Squatter A Hold Over Tenant Who Has Been Legally Evicted?

If the squatter is a holdover tenant who has been legally evicted, you need to serve them with a notice to quit. If they have not been evicted but need to pay rent, you must serve them with a three-day notice to pay or quit.    

Is The Squatter or Holdover Tenant Refusing to Leave?

If the squatter or holdover tenant is refusing to leave, you will need to have your attorney file what is called an “unlawful detainer” action against them. An unlawful detainer action is a summary proceeding to determine the right to possession of the real property. These lawsuits basically have the court declare who is the rightful owner of the real property and who should have possession. Unlawful detainer actions are moved quickly through the court system, and you can expect a speedy trial date and decision.    

If you win your unlawful detainer action, you will be furnished with what is called a writ of execution.    

A writ of execution is a judicial order that a judgment be enforced. In this scenario, the writ of execution will instruct that the squatter or holdover tenant be removed from the property. Give a copy of the writ of execution to the sheriff. The writ of execution empowers the sheriff to legally remove, physically, if necessary, the squatter or holdover tenant from your property. While it might be highly tempting to go out there yourself and haul the squatter off your land, please do not do it. You must have the sheriff remove the squatter or holdover tenant for you. Trying to remove the squatter yourself could only expose you to liability or even injury. Let the professionals do it once the court tells them they can.     

What Can The Squatter Do to Win?   

There are a few ways that the squatter can fight back. For instance, if your property taxes are two years or more overdue and the squatter pays them, the squatter can claim title via adverse possession in just one year. The squatter is not required to pay any property taxes for the five years they adversely possess the land.  

Another way the squatter could win is if you choose not to deal with the situation through the court system. For example, once you find out you have a squatter, you have the locks changed while they are gone and have the power and water cut off, seems like a simple, logical solution, right? Wrong. If the squatter is a holdover tenant, they can file a lawsuit for unlawful eviction against you, they may not win, but they will cost you a lot of time and money, all the while living in the property rent-free. Another possibility is that you get together a group of friends and go to evict the squatter with force, inevitably, the police will be called, and you could be facing criminal charges if anyone is injured or their property is damaged.     

The most straightforward way the squatter can win, though, is for all the reasons discussed above. To meet all the elements required by the law for five years and be able to claim legal title to the property.     

If you are the owner of property in Iowa and have concerns about securing your land from adverse possessors, it is always a good idea to meet with an experienced Iowa attorney who can adequately advise you. If you are already dealing with a squatter or holdover tenants, you should also consult with an Iowa real estate attorney who can make sure that your rights are protected. You do not and should not try to deal with these legal issues on your own; feel free to give O’Flaherty Law a call. We would be happy to help you.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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