Opportunists are believed to be exploiting a little-known “quiet title” laws in Iowa and other states in the Midwest to seize control of people’s homes and sell them without their knowledge. Worse still, they’re mostly targeting immigrants who are unlikely to know how the laws work.
Iowa Public Radio reported on the case Natalia Esteban, a 72-year-old immigrant, originally from Mexico. She said that when she returned to her home of more than 20 years in Marshalltown, Iowa, she found someone had assumed a legal title and put her home up for sale.
Quiet title actions are usually used to resolve boundary disputes or determine who owns a property after someone passes away. But opportunists reportedly are exploiting the vaguely written laws in some municipalities to make an argument that the property has been abandoned and thus take possession.
The actual property owner may not receive notifications that this is happening. The petitioner can argue that the most recent owner can’t be found—in the above case, the homeowner was out of the country at the time. Petitioners are then required to post a public notice, but it’s all too easy to miss the small-print public notice printed in a local newspaper, as in the Iowa case. If homeowners fail to show up in court to argue their side, the other party can claim ownership of the home.
Law experts are concerned the law is being misused or unfairly wielded against immigrants, who may miss notices in English-language newspapers.
Between 2018 and 2021, 55 quiet title petitions were filed in Marshall County, around Marshalltown, alone. Housing advocates warn that similar quiet title laws could put properties at risk in Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas as well.
“I’d say the average person knows absolutely nothing about quieting titles or even what the title is,” Mike White, a real estate attorney based in Kansas City, Mo., told Iowa Public Radio.