When you buy real estate, you buy the land and the improvements that are on that land. But, and this is an important but, you also inherit or assume all of the real estate tax obligations for that home.
Let’s say you purchased your home in the summer of 2017. At the time you purchased your home, your purchase contract should have allocated the responsibilities for the payment of real estate taxes as of your settlement or closing date. Depending on where your home is located, some of the real estate taxes for 2016 may not have been paid in full, and some or all of the taxes for 2017 may have not been fully billed and paid.
In this situation, your seller should have given you money at closing (as a credit against the purchase price or otherwise) for the real estate taxes the seller owed up to or through the day of closing. In some areas, local custom is that the seller gives the buyer a credit for real estate taxes for the day of closing or settlement, while in other areas the custom is that the seller pays up to but not the day of closing.
Having said all that, if there were real estate tax bills that were unpaid for the time before your closing, you and your seller should have settled up at the closing table. The seller should have given you money (or the credit) for the taxes the seller owed. If the bill for the taxes had already been published (or sent to the seller), the seller could have paid that bill at that time. If the bill was out but not due for some time after the closing, the seller would have given you the money to pay those real estate taxes that would come due after the closing.
In some situations, you might owe the seller for any real estate tax bills that would have been paid before the closing that covered the time period you would have owned the home. For example, if the tax bills are paid in two installments, with each covering half the year. If you bought the property in the middle of the third quarter, the seller would have paid property taxes that covered that second half of the year, even though the seller lived there for only some of that time.
Suffice it to say that you are now the owner of the home (and have been for at least one full tax year) and must pay any and all real estate tax bills owed on the home, whether those taxes are for this year or even for the time your seller owned the home. Because if back taxes are owed, even if they were unpaid taxes from when the seller lived there, you need to bring those current, or you could lose your property.
We can't get into the many ways real estate taxes are billed and paid around the country, but we can say that if your seller failed to pay a real estate tax bill for the time the seller owned the property, you might have a claim against your title insurance company on your owner's title insurance policy.
(We always recommend that buyers receive an owner’s title insurance policy when they close on the purchase of a home. Here’s one reason: Before closing, the title company would prepare a title commitment or title report. That commitment or report should have told you what taxes are still owed on the property, and if the commitment or report shows that the taxes are current, you close and then find that real estate taxes are unpaid, you might have a claim against the title company for your loss in having to pay real estate taxes that you were told were paid.)
At the end of the day, once you close on the purchase of a home, you become the owner of the home and are obligated to pay all real estate tax bills that are due at the time you close and that become due from and after the day of your closing.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, ThinkGlink.com.