We owned our home outright but the city
was still able to take it from us!

One raw day in early February, Vicki Valentine stood by helplessly as real estate investors snatched her West Baltimore home over what began with an unpaid city water bill of $362. Those small amount liens happened to 666 other families in that city, as well, same year. There were nearly hundreds of times more LARGE amount leins but that's a different story.

As snow threatened to fall, she watched a work crew hired by the new owners punch out the lock on her front door. A sheriff's deputy was on the scene while Valentine and her teenage son piled whatever they could into a borrowed car.

Running out of time, Valentine scrambled to pack up clothing and mementos.The home had been her family's for nearly three decades, and her father had paid off the mortgage in 1984. 'It's hard to say goodbye to this house,' she said. 'It's like someone forcing you out of something that belongs to you. I don't get it.'

Valentine lost the two-story brick row home after the city sold her debt to investors through a contentious and Byzantine legal process called a 'tax sale.' This little-known type of foreclosure can enrich investors as growing numbers of property owners struggle to pay their bills.

These foreclosed homeowners are not the families making headlines for taking on mortgages they could ill afford. Families ensnared in the tax sale sometimes are unable to overcome relatively small debts owed to local tax collectors.

Rather than collect the overdue money they are owed, many local governments are selling tax liens. Buyers range from behemoths such as JPMorgan Chase & Co, and some regional banks and law firms, to small-fry investors lured by late-night television commercials promising quick riches. Investors generally bid in an auction for the right to collect delinquent taxes and other municipal debts on property owners, sometimes by paying only a few hundred dollars. When owners can't pay, investors can pick up property at bargain prices.

It can be a good deal for everyone except the property owner. Selling the debts to investors can help governments efficiently ease budget woes without having the added expenses of debt collection, foreclosing and being a landlord.

Investors, meanwhile, can rake in hefty profits. That's because they can tack on fees and steep interest rates, which can amount to 18 percent annually in Baltimore.

In Valentine's case, legal fees and other charges climbed past $3,600--nearly 10 times her original bill.

Investors purchased an estimated $30 billion of real estate tax debt held by governments across the country in 2009,double the amount a year earlier, according to the Florida-based National Tax Lien Association. Altogether, 29 states and the District of Columbia can sell tax lien debt to investors.

Lien sales in Baltimore have nearly doubled since the housing bubble of 2006. On Monday, the city sold 12,689 liens -- a probable record. Properties ranged from boarded-up shells and vacant lots to row homes in gentrified neighborhoods and some commercial buildings.

City records show that one in five of these liens on properties is for unpaid taxes or other municipal bills amounting to $1,000 or less. If Baltimore's 2009 tax sale is any indication, hundreds will stem from delinquent water bills; there were 666 such liens last year.
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A real estate gal told me: 'Sometimes people don't pay their property taxes for whatever reason be it sheer obliviousness, not knowing when to file taxes for the year, or some other unforeseen reason.. When they do this, eventually the taxing authority (usually the county, sometimes the city if there's city property taxes) sues them in a tax foreclosure to force the sale of their house in order to use the proceeds of the sale to pay the taxes off.  While it is tragic that someone might lose a house in which they have significant equity by not being able to pay the taxes, the other side of the coin is that someone else might gain a piece of real estate for very cheap'. That someone else could be you.

Because property taxes are the first lien on a piece of property, in front of the mortgage and any mechanics' liens or  certified judgments, and because foreclosure wipes out liens on property, it doesn't matter if the property had a mortgage on it. You can buy it for the taxes and it'll be free and clear.

It is possible to bid at these auctions and buy property at significant discounts. However, other bidders can bid up the price of the property. Furthermore, you must have the cash to pay for what you've bought. Still, it can be a good deal.

Some states also have an intermediate stage where the taxing authority sells an interest bearing instrument called a tax lien certificate. Basically they are getting someone else to pay the delinquent property taxes and paying them interest. They then charge the interest to the delinquent taxpayer. Some states pay really good interest on these certificates, as high as 20%. So for an investment of maybe as little as a few hundred dollars, you can be getting some pretty good interest. Most times the taxpayer catches up. Sometimes they don't. You still get the interest.

The taxing authority will sit on the certificate for a while, maybe a year, and then if the taxpayer still doesn't pay their taxes they foreclose. In most places the certificate holder only needs to apply to get the deed to the property, but in a few places they need to actually do the foreclosure themselves. In this manner, you can obtain a property for  pennies on the dollar.

How to get these certificates:

Some counties only sell these certificates in bulk, but others offer them by the each to anyone. Often they'll have an auction once or twice a year. If a certificate doesn't sell at the auction, then the county offers it for sale over the counter. Some places even offer them over the Internet, so you don't need to travel there to buy the certificate.

Each state is different about whether or not they have tax lien certificates or not; and each county in states that do  certificates do theirs differently from the next county. So you have to look it up, or call and ask.

Here's the Caveat Emptor: Anytime you buy one of these certificates, or bid on a property at auction, it behooves you to know what the condition is of the property. The dangers are not only that the property is run-down, or missing its plumbing, or has building orders on it. Sometimes a property might have an environmental problem. Maybe the owner isn't paying taxes on it so that he will lose the property on purpose, because otherwise he faces an EPA clean-up of an old underground gas tank. Maybe the property used to be a gas station. For this reason, many buyers of tax lien certificates check and make sure the property is not on a street corner, because gas stations are mostly on street corners. They will have also someone go look at the house and see if they can determine what its condition is. The closer to the time of the auction you can do this the better. People losing their houses often get mad and strip them of their fixtures, or thieves can break into vacant houses and do this. This could happen right before the auction.

There are tax lien states and tax deed states. OH is a tax deed state.  If you don't pay your property taxes the Auditor can foreclose on you.  If the house doesn't sell I think then the county gets it and people can buy it from the county.   I met a guy who bought property that way real cheap. KY and IN are tax lien states, if you don't pay your property taxes they make a lien first, and then eventually sell your lien at auction.  If it doesn't sell at auction, then people can buy the lien afterwards from the property valuation authority  (this is the KY version of the auditor) or treasurer, not sure which.  Anyway, the buyer of the lien gets a pretty high return, like 12 or 16 percent depending on which state.  The guy who has the lien on his house has to pay 12 or 16  percent.  If the taxpayer still doesn't pay, then either the taxing authority can foreclose, or maybe it's the lien holder who has to if they want their money.  I think it differs from place to place. Michigan has a hybrid system.  In some circumstances, like if the taxpayer doesn't pay for 2 years, the rate on the lien goes up to 50%.  But there are some places in MI where it's just a tax deed sale. If your house goes this way you do get a lot of chances to redeem it. The house next door to mine was recently attempted to be auctioned for the city taxes, but no one bid.  It was tied up in a bankruptcy and then I think the owner died.  It has been vacant a long time.

I went to the Hamilton County OH website (this is the county Cincinnati is in).  Apparently they do sell tax liens in Ohio, but only in bulk.  Here is what it said. " The purpose of the Tax Lien Sale is to collect delinquent real estate taxes owed to the county which are needed to fund  our schools, agencies and local governments while offering property owners the opportunity to retain their properties and avoid foreclosure.  Basic Overview of the Sale  Taxes that are unpaid following the Second Half (June) tax collection period are advertised as delinquent in November  and are eligible for tax certificate sale in October of the following year. If you have unpaid taxes and your property has  been advertised, a tax lien certificate may be sold on your property.   To avoid the sale of a tax lien certificate on your property, you must pay your taxes in full or have entered into a  payment plan with the County Treasurer's office. You may also be responsible for additional fees and costs associated with the tax lien certificate sale. For information regarding your delinquent taxes and the availability of payment plans, call our Delinquent Tax Department at 513-946-4799.   Tax certificate sales are usually held around the 2nd week of October.  For more information on purchasing Tax Liens, contact the Treasurer's office at 513-946-4800. Please Note: All eligible liens will be auctioned as a single block. The county does not sell individual  tax lien certificates. As in all Ohio counties selling tax certificates, the bulk sale or auction of tax certificates in Hamilton County is not designed for individual investors."

You can buy a certificate? Does this mean you can buy a house? I asked by return email."Yes, You can buy a tax lien certificate and if they don't pay their taxes  after that you can end up with their house, cheap.  That's the short answer.  So in a way it's a double edged sword.  Either you can lose your house for not being able to pay the taxes, a relatively small sum compared to the  value of the house, or you can pick up a house cheap because someone else  can't pay their taxes.

The long answer is caveat emptor.  Sometimes there is a reason why someone is neglecting to pay their property taxes.  Maybe they are trying to get foreclosed on so they can get away from an environmental problem.  EPA clean-ups are not cheap.

Or, it may be a property with a lot of building orders on it, in a bad part of town.  You have to do your homework.  Inspect (or at least drive by) the property you are thinking to bid on.  Or get someone to do it for you. I once had a tax lien certificate opportunity fall in my lap.  When I bought the house I live in, I kept getting these Arizona property tax bills mailed to my house that were for the prior occupants of the house (they were deadbeat relatives of the guy who sold it to me).  They owned a trailer down in Arizona on land and hadn't paid their property taxes for a year or two. I called the county it was in, Navajo County, and found out I could purchase a tax lien certificate on the trailer for the $600 these deadbeats owed, and probably end up with their property after a while.  I had $600.  But I wanted to find out what I was getting into.  I asked more questions and found out that the trailer actually had utilities going to it (sort of rare in that part of Arizona) but it was a single wide from the 1970's (i.e. a dinosaur with aluminum wiring and not worth very much).  Also the prospect of driving to Arizona to determine whether this trailer was actually in any condition to live in, made me pass on it.

There are some who espouse buying tax lien certs. as a high yield investment, because some states pay up to 20% interest, you're guaranteed either a return on your money, or the property, the amounts you invest can be relatively small, and most of the time the owner of the property catches up on their taxes and you get the interest, not the house.  You can also buy these certs. online in some counties, which means someone can be in another part of the country, even be overseas, and as long as they have someone local to inspect houses, they can invest.  Also, through a tax foreclosure, all other liens on the property are wiped out, including the mortgage(s). So if you get the house, it's free and clear, with a few exceptions (water bill? Special assessments?) Institutional investors sometimes buy tax lien certs. in bulk.

Each state, even each county is different in how they handle their tax  liens.  A lot of times they'll have an auction once a year, and then whatever doesn't sell at that auction can be bought directly from that county.  Some counties will sell their leftovers over the counter.

Now this is just the states that sell tax lien certificates.  Some states just sell the property at auction instead and don't bother with the certificate stage. Read The novel "House of Sand and Fog.  This Iranian guy buys a California house at a tax auction, and there's this recovering druggie girl who lost the  house, she falls in love with the sheriff's deputy whose duty it is to put her out, he starts doing things to harass the Iranian guy, and things get very weird and tragic.  It's also a movie with Ben Kingsley

You heard of rent to own, now there's SQUAT TO OWN! ANOTHER METHOD of getting real estate is to use a combo of tax liens and adverse possession to get real estate cheap in California! There is  a lawyer out there who is advocating the use of adverse possession to get real estate, so google those search terms. In Calif, if you inhabit (squat in!) an abandoned house  and pay the property taxes on it for 5 years, you can then do a quiet title (it's a kind of lawsuit against the whole world) and get title to the house. Quiet title lawsuits cost around $1500 to start. So you can't be utterly penniless and do this, but you can get a house cheap that way. You can also  use tenants to occupy the house, you don't have to occupy it yourself. There's so much abandoned property nowadays due to all the foreclosures, I'm  sure this is a ripe time to do it. The REAL ESTATE girl's own BLOG has the story of leins and a great deal more. She's famous as the penny pincher lady. is the link or used to be, she left her website online but empty. Gov was penalizing her for teaching such tricks. I will carry on her work til they get me.