Squatting arises when someone enters vacant land or property you own or stand to inherit and attempts to take possession without your permission. In most cases, this act is both a civil and criminal trespass—but sometimes the squatter’s possession can be perfectly legal.
Squatter problems could happen to you at any time, and people who invade your property will usually be individuals you know or people that you’ve done business with in the past.
Friends, relatives, holdover tenants, or any person who refuses to pay you to live on your land is a squatter under the law—and if you do not oust them promptly, these adverse possessors may lawfully take your land or building away from you.
Most heirs and beneficiaries don’t know how to resolve squatter situations.
Do you evict the intruder as you would a non-paying renter, or can you use physical force to remove the trespasser?
The following squatter ousting guide includes important information for present and future property owners in Iowa who want to protect their real estate ownership interests from trespassers without assuming illegal eviction liability.
Read on to learn how to get rid of squatters and take back land that’s rightfully yours
Table of Contents for Squatter Removal
- What is a Squatter?
- Aren’t Squatters Trespassers?
- When Criminal Trespassers Become Civil Squatters
- Adverse Possession in Iowa
- When Squatters Receive Color of Title Sooner
- The Five Elements of Adverse Possession
- Squatter Removal Checklist
- Who Pays Property Taxes?
- Disabled Landowner Exception
- COVID-19 Concerns
What is a Squatter?
A squatter is someone who occupies your real property without lawful permission. These actors are sometimes strangers who break into and seize your recently inherited estate or unused land. But more often than not, squatters tend to be old renters (holdover tenants) or relatives of a deceased loved one who refuse to leave because they feel they have a right to call your property their home.
Aren’t Squatters Trespassers?
Squatting is typically a civil matter that requires a court order to evict (oust) the unwelcome tenant.
A squatter however may be a criminal trespasser requiring immediate removal by law enforcement—often arising when uninvited people intrude on your land and refuse to leave after you discover their presence and order them to vacate the premises.
When Criminal Trespassers Become Civil Squatters
Criminal trespassers may acquire “civil squatter” status, thus requiring a court ordered ejectment, when special circumstances occur:
- The intruder produces a lease or deed (real or fake) showing that he/she holds a right to possess your property when law enforcement shows up to arrest him/her.
- A person invades your land or building during an emergency but refuses to leave thereafter.
- The trespasser openly makes improvements to your property (remodeling, land maintenance, painting) without your objection.
- An old renter (someone who took legal possession of your property) doesn’t vacate the premise at the end of his/her lease.
- An intruder claims squatter’s rights per Iowa’s adverse possession law.
Adverse Possession in Iowa
Iowa legislation allows individuals to take legal ownership of your property rights when you abandon them under the law.
Trespassers accordingly may claim squatter entitlement (adverse possession) per Iowa Code § 560.1 after exclusively and openly occupying your real property continuously for five years without protest or legal ejectment from you.
A squatter who successfully acquires an adverse possession claim against your real estate will hold “color of title” over the asset (irregular and perpetual possession) of which he/she may enjoy forever or sell to another person.
Contrarily, people who seize your property during the five-year adverse possession period are civil trespassers that you may legally eject from the premises at any time.
When Squatters Receive Color of Title Sooner
Some trespassers may not have to wait a full five years to claim adverse possession against your property.
Iowa Code § 560.2 allows squatters to pursue a color of title claim one year after they perform valuable improvements on the real estate they occupy. Similarly, if you didn’t pay your property taxes for two consecutive years and the civil trespasser pays the dues for you, the courts will allow the squatter to claim color of title earlier.
The Five Elements of Adverse Possession
Squatters must not only occupy your land, to secure a color of title, the civil trespassers must also satisfy five legal requirements before bringing their adverse possession claims to court:
- Hostility. A simple occupation of the premise with or without awareness of the trespassing or a good faith occupation where the intruder honestly believes that he/she has a legal right to live there.
- Actual Possession. Squatter must be physically present on the premise and maintain the property as if it was their own during the adverse possession period.
- Open and Notorious. The occupation must be open and obvious (not hidden) where the public and the landowner can witness the squatting during a reasonable investigation.
- Exclusivity. The civil trespasser must hold exclusive possession and not share property ownership with other intruders.
- Continuous Possession. Intruders may not interrupt their occupation. The adverse possession clock stops ticking as soon as a squatter reasonably abandons your property.
Squatter Removal Checklist
If you find a squatter on your land, you must act quickly. Estate dispute attorneys can help you better understand Iowa’s civil ejection procedures and help you navigate through the legal hurdles that you’ll face in court.
You must further observe Iowa’s squatter removal code carefully, as the courts may consider deviations from the state’s strict civil eviction statutes to be an illegal ejectment.
The following checklist explains squatter ouster procedure in a nutshell:
- Report the Trespass—call the sheriff as soon as you discover an intruder occupying your land or premise. If you’re lucky, law enforcement will remove the trespasser immediately. If however the police believe the intruder holds valid squatter’s rights, you’ll have to eject him/her via civil eviction.
- Serve a Notice—when the squatter is a holdover tenant, properly serve him/her with a three-day notice to pay or quit or a seven-day notice to vacate if the lease has expired.
- Seek an Unlawful Detainer—retain an estate dispute attorney to bring unlawful detainer action against the squatter or the holdover tenant after their notice expiries.
- Ask the Sheriff to Remove the Squatter—even after you win your unlawful detainer lawsuit and obtain a valid writ of execution to oust the trespasser, you may not personally remove the intruder. State statutes compel you to solicit sheriff services for a forceful squatter eviction from your land.
- Never Pursue Self-Help Eviction Tactics—if you bypass civil procedure and try to oust the squatter through self-help acts such as changing the locks, cutting utilities, or physically ejecting the intruder off the premise with force, you will most likely find yourself defending an expensive unlawful eviction lawsuit brought by the trespasser.
Who Pays Property Taxes?
Iowa squatters need not pay real estate taxes during the five-year adverse possession period or before claiming color of title.
However, as mentioned above, when the civil trespasser pays your unpaid property tax bill (after two years in delinquency), he/she can seek a color of title one year after occupying your land.
Disabled Landowner Exception
Iowa Code allows disabled landowners (i.e. minors, incapacitated adults) to escape adverse possession claims against them. But when such individuals come of age or recover, they’ll have only one year to evict any squatters possessing their real property beginning from the date their disability ended.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state and federal legislators may have narrowed your ejectment options. Some counties in Iowa have consequently suspended service of process and disallowed landowners from performing civil evictions.
You should therefore consult with a squatter removal attorney in your area to obtain more information about property owner rights against squatters if you encounter a trespasser living on your land during this unusual time in our country.