Anywhere the get-rich-quick-in-real-estaters gather, you will hear about the glories of the tax-lien sale. It's played as a fantastic way to make some easy money, practically guaranteed.
That's not quite so. But public authorities that run tax-lien sales are being inundated with eager calls from folks seeking road maps to all those streets being paved with gold.
This column checked the procedures for three of the states that are touted by some of the get-rich-quickers as allowing especially high interest rates. Here's the story on what tax-lien sales are and how they work:
Say that I inherited a small house from my aunt. I have it on the market for a couple of years, it deteriorates a bit and I get sick of it. So I quit paying taxes on the house and walk away from it.
Eventually, the local taxing authority will put a tax lien on the house, then put that lien up for sale to investors.
You, the investor, can buy the right to pay my back taxes. You'll have to put up the money right there at the sale, in cash, certified check or money order. You have to register the transaction to certify your claim. Then you wait. If I don't pay my taxes for a second year, you might pay them, too, in order to protect your investment. After a certain period of time, depending on the state, you have the right to foreclose on the property (at your expense).
How do you make money? In one of two ways. I might decide that I don't want to walk away from my aunt's house after all. I redeem the lien and repay the investor the money he laid out plus whatever interest rate is required.
If I don't redeem the tax lien, you foreclose and get the property. You have now bought my aunt's house for the cost of the taxes plus foreclosure expenses. You plan to refurbish the house and put it back up for sale. (If you bought only the first year's tax lien on the house, and someone else bought the second year's lien, you would have a partner in foreclosure, which could be complicated. For this reason, investors usually try to buy all the liens themselves.)
If the property has promise, you'll make some money on it. But if you bought a real dog, you may have no more success in selling it than I did. Any tax-lien buyer has to pay close attention to the underlying real estate, to avoid being stung.
In New Jersey, bidding at tax-lien sales starts at 18 percent interest -- meaning that if the property owner wants to redeem the lien, that's the interest rate he has to pay. If there's only one bidder, 18 percent will carry the day. But if two people are interested in the property, they will bid down the interest rate they are willing to accept. The winner might agree to invest his money on the hope of, say, a 14 percent return.
Wendy Bukowski, assistant tax collector for South Brunswick Township, N.J., says that when bidding occurs, interest rates usually settle somewhere in the teens, although occasionally some are bid down to zero. The liens most likely to be redeemed, according to Joseph Rauch, the town's chief financial officer: those for water and sewer taxes, "because these usually involve people who are just behind in their bills."
An investor has to wait two years before initiating foreclosure. The properties that go into foreclosure tend to be vacant land rather than housing, Bukowski says.
Tax-lien sales in Illinois are similar to New Jersey's except that the interest rate can be higher on redemption. "Bidding starts at 18 percent for six months," Cook County's Tom Leach told my associate, Virginia Wilson. That rate is rolled over for the second six months, so if you're the only bidder you could get 36 percent for the year. But good properties, he says, bring out many bidders. The rate could go down to 5 percent or even zero.
In Michigan, the procedure is different. You bid for the percentage of the interest you want to gain in the property. If you want an undivided interest in the real estate, you bid 100 percent, and the investor who yells first wins.
If you are willing to accept a lesser interest, which means that you don't have clear title, you might bid 90 percent. You still have to pay the full amount of delinquent taxes, but the lien would be yours. Why do it? Tom Willard of Michigan's Treasury Department says you might be betting that a prior lienholder will be forced to buy you out.
If the property owner wants to redeem the lien during the first year, he pays the investor 1.25 percent a month (15 percent a year). If he redeems during the next six months, he has to pay the investor 50 percent of the money he laid out. After 18 months of no-pay, the investor can begin foreclosure proceedings.
The bottom line: You can make some money in tax sales, but you have to study them and take some risks.