Bill Veith flung his left hand into the air, waved his bid card vigorously and became the owner of a three pieces of D.C. real estate during yesterday's auction of what the city considers neglected property.
Veith was one of 200 people who crowded into the police department's lineup room at 300 Indiana Ave. NW to bid on abandoned houses and vacant lots. Many of the properties ended up at auction when landlords refused to pay the city for cleaning lots or boarding up buildings under the city's new Clean It or Lien It program.
To the dismay of the officials of the Finance and Revenue Department, which is conducting the two-day auction, Veith and others bought properties with no idea of what they had purchased.
"I don't know what I just bought, but I hope it is something good," said Veith, 28, owner of a landscaping company. "I will go out tonight and see what it is I bought."
The properties Veith bought appeared on the official government list without addresses, just square and lot numbers. Veith chose them because the liens were generally about $100, much less than the money owed on other properties that appeared on the list with street addresses.
Confusion about auction procedures and conflicting information given by department officials kept many of the bidders asking questions of each other and the auctioneer. For most of the day, however, the bidders sat quietly, hunched over tattered, month-old copies of a paid advertisement that the city government ran in local newspapers listing more than 1,300 properties in small type. There were no lists supplied by the District yesterday because officials said it cost too much to furnish them.
Many of the usual and knowledgable bidders who show up at the annual tax auction in January were absent from yesterday's auction, said Alfred L. Richards, deputy chief for assessments in the Finance and Revenue Department. He said most had become discouraged by the long court process needed to claim property bought at auction.
"We've got a lot of new faces," he said. "And I'm afraid they don't know what they are doing."
But they didn't have any trouble following the escalating numbers once the bidding began. When auctioneer Mary Short-Davis had trouble keeping a running tab on the amount bid, she could count on a chorus of shouts to correct her. At one point when bidders yelled the correct amount of the closing bid to her, she said, "You got me going early this morning. I'm awake now."
Richards categorized the process of buying property through the auction as "very dangerous" because bidders often don't bother to find out what other liens exist against the property.
"There could be 100 years of tax liens against a tiny sliver of land," he said. "And the bidders are responsible for all the liens against that property, not just what shows up here today on this list."
Richards said owners have six months to redeem their properties by paying off the liens as well as the amount bid at the auction. If owners don't buy back the property, the bidder becomes the owner and begins the laborious process of clearing the title.
City officials said the purpose of the auction was to get real estate into the hands of people who will do something with it, citing the many neglected lots and houses owned by absentee landlords.
Yesterday, Richard Naylor was a happy man when he successfully bid on a vacant lot on Benning Road NE that adjoins two lots he already owns.
"The owner never takes care of that lot," he said. "I take care of my lots. I waited all day for that lot to come up. I plan to build a new house for my family there."