Vacant Residential Property Information

Vacant residential properties have become more frequent with the down turn of the national economy.  A small number of vacant and neglected properties can damage the fabric of an entire neighborhood.  The purpose of this web page is to assist residents in minimizing the damage that vacant properties have on their neighborhood and to give them the tools necessary to address vacant and blighted properties.

Why are properties vacant?

Foreclosures/Walk Aways - The recent increase in vacant residences is most likely due to foreclosures and/or owners walking away from their properties.  The economy has caused some people to be unable or unwilling to make their mortgage payments.  Banks have foreclosed on some of these properties and owners have simply walked away from others.  The most current ownership information on properties may be obtained by going to the Polk County Assessors web page

Iowa has one of the longest foreclosure processes in the country.  While the length of time it takes to foreclose on a property varies greatly, it can take upwards of 12-18 months to complete the process.  In many circumstances, homeowners move out before they have to, thus leaving a hole in the neighborhood.  Many homeowners are unaware of the foreclosure process in Iowa, and what legal rights they have.  If you or someone you know is facing foreclosure, contact the Iowa Mortgage Helpline at (877) 622-4866 or .

Because the foreclosure process is lengthy and is very complex, it is difficult to determine if a property is being foreclosed on.  The final step in the process is to auction the property at a Sheriff Sale.  Until this occurs, the previous owner is still legally responsible to maintain the property.  Once the foreclosure process is complete, the lender typically becomes the owner of the property.   To view of list of properties that have recently completed the foreclosure process see the Polk County Sheriff web site.



What can neighborhoods do to prevent vacant properties from becoming blighted? – Many neighborhoods have adopted a proactive strategy to address vacant residential properties.  Some neighborhoods have begun to assist with the maintenance of adjacent properties by mowing the yard, removing snow, and parking cars in the driveway to maintain the appearance of occupancy.  While, the City  Does Not  endorse these methods, they have been successful in other neighborhoods in minimizing the damage that vacant properties have had on neighborhoods.

In addition, use resources like the Polk County Assessor’s website to contact the property owner.  If the owner of the property is absentee, many times they are unaware of the condition their property is in.  A gentle reminder from a neighborhood or neighborhood association can help to improve the appearance of the property.  If the home is for sale, contact the real estate agent and ask for their help.  All of these tips can help improve the appearance of the vacant property.

Government intervention - When the condition of the property deteriorates to the point it violates Municipal Code, the City can intervene.  Typically, by that time, the condition of the property has deteriorated to the point where it has had a negative impact on the neighborhood.  The City of Des Moines does not have a property maintenance code.

Public Nuisance/Condemned Residential Properties - When a residential property is deemed to be unsafe, the property is declared a public nuisance by the Board of Health.  The Neighborhood Inspections Division ( or (515) 283-4046 is the best source of information on properties that have been declared public nuisances.  Demolishing a property or structure is many times the final step in the public nuisance process.  Because this is a very complicated process, it can take upwards of two years to complete and requires a legal process.  The Court determines the time frame for addressing the public nuisance.

 What determines when a property is declared a public nuisance?  Sec. 60-301  Defects:  A residential structure and/or accessory structure found to have any of the defects listed in this section shall be declared unfit for human habitation and a public nuisance.  If so designated it shall be placarded by the Neighborhood Inspection Division.  A structure which is a public nuisance and unfit for human habitation or use is one which:  (1)  Is so damaged, decayed, dilapidated, unsanitary, unsafe or vermin-infested that it creates a hazard to the health, safety or welfare of the occupants or to the public; (2)  lacks illumination, ventilation or sanitary facilities adequate to protect the health, safety and welfare of the occupants or the general public; or (3)  Because of its general condition, or location is unsanitary, or otherwise dangerous to the health, safety or welfare of the occupants or to the public.

 If a house has a lot of peeling paint and the eaves are hanging off can it be declared a public nuisance and torn down?  Generally no, before a house can be torn down or have repairs mandated the neighborhood inspector must be able to convince a judge that the property is unsafe.  With the exception of rental property the City of Des Moines does not have a property maintenance code for either occupied or unoccupied residential properties.

Elderly or Deceased Owners- Historically Des Moines has always had a small percentage of vacant properties where the owners were elderly.  These owners may become hospitalized, move to assisted living, or become physically unable to maintain the property.    We also see properties where the title holder has died and there is either no family, or family that is disconnected and not willing to take ownership or control of the property.  In some cases where there are heirs involved, they simply are unwilling to part with mom and dad’s house.

Houses For Sale- Houses are often empty when they are for sale.  Sometimes the maintenance of these homes doesn’t meet neighborhood expectations.

What can be done when code violations are observed on properties that are sitting vacant?  The same ordinances and services available to residences with problem neighbors are available if the properties are vacant.  The most common issues are listed below with phone numbers and links to the appropriate provider:

Grass not Mowed/Weeds: Polk County Weed Commissioner (515) 286-3005

Sidewalks defects or Not Shoveled:  Des Moines Public Works (515) 283-4950

Security of a vacant Property/Property not secured:  Neighborhood Inspections, (515) 283-4046,

Vagrants in a Vacant Property:   Des Moines Police (515) 283-4811 or 9-1-1

Public Nuisance/Condemned:   Neighborhood Inspection (515) 283-4046,

Foreclosure List:  Polk County Sheriff

Ownership Information:  Polk County Assessor

Junk and Debris Complaints:  Neighborhood inspections, (515) 283-4046,

Junk Vehicles:  Neighborhood Inspections, (515) 283-4046,

Parking in the Front yard:  Neighborhood Inspections, (515) 283-4046,