At $4,300, Liana Montero's winning bid on a Dupont Circle property was nowhere near the highest offer made yesterday during the District's annual property auction.
Still, a small group of fellow bidders sent up a cheer when the auctioneer said, "Sold to number 263."
"All of us are first-time bidders," Montero said, gesturing toward the people sitting around her, people she had just met at the auction. "We really want a house. We're not here to make money."
But plenty of people did show up hoping to turn a profit on real estate whose owners are delinquent in paying the taxes. Officials of the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue also are looking to take in nearly $20 million in delinquent taxes as a result of the sale, which will continue this week until it collects overdue taxes on more than 5,500 properties throughout the city.
Stanley Jackson, chief of real property tax assessment services, wore a formal but friendly smile as he strolled around the auction room, while auctioneer Nancy Pilkerton nudged the bidding up by increments of $25. When the bids reach $400, she pushes in increments of $50; for bids over $1,000, increments of $100.
When the sale was announced last month with full-page newspaper ads, 7,730 properties were on the list to be auctioned off this week. Among the accused tax delinquents were Patrick J. Buchanan, a Republican candidate for president, Rep. Thomas Paul Lantos (D-Calif.) and the Embassy of Botswana. But those three, along with hundreds of taxpayers, have since rushed forward to settle up with Jackson's office.
In fact, people like Monteros are not guaranteed they will even own the properties on which they bid. Yesterday's bidders only purchased the tax bills for the properties. The property owners have six months to retain their real estate by paying the overdue taxes, along with 18 percent interest, to the holders of the tax liens.
That kind of profit is what drew Phillip Choi, a resident of Annapolis, to the auction. "It's better than buying stock or a mutual fund," he said. It was Choi's first auction, and he made a common mistake of first-time bidders and exceeded the amount of money he had placed on deposit. One of the properties that he appeared to have won was put back up for auction.
"Please do not get caught up in the excitement of the bidding war," Jackson admonished the bidders during a break in the proceedings. "There will be no oops! If you make an error, you buy the error."
Al Piscatelli didn't need the lecture. He was seated in the front row, along with a cadre of other investors representing major financial or real estate institutions.
Piscatelli works for a Maryland firm called ATAC, which specializes in buying tax liens. He said he attends auctions throughout Maryland, and his demeanor yesterday suggested that he enjoys his work: He waved his bid card; he playfully taunted the auctioneer; he cast comical glares at rival bidders.
Rachel Rich sat through the proceedings, then left without ever having raised her bid card.
"I just wanted to get the feel of it," she said. "It's a little intimidating."
Rich plans to bid on a property in Southeast Washington where she hopes to live. The property will not come up for bid until later in the week, and Rich said she will be back.
"I have a strategy," she said. "I'm not just going to bid like crazy. I'm going to be the first one to put my hand up, and I'm going to keep it up and hope I win."
CAPTION: Al Piscatelli, bidder number 10 at left, checks the back of the room to see who's bidding against him on a property. Piscatelli represents a Maryland company that buys tax liens at municipal auctions.
CAPTION: Moses Karaenny looks over Dan Green's list of properties subject to tax liens that are up for sale in this week's auction.