Q: I rented a house from a person who turned out not to be the owner of the home. I contacted the authorities and the scammer disappeared. We were told by the police to try to find the true owner of the home. We even hired a private investigator but had no luck.
Now the home is being sold at auction due to delinquent taxes owed. Is there any way I can gain title to the home without being able to locate the owner? I can then pay the delinquent back taxes before the auction.
A: So, here’s a question for you: Now that you know that the person who claimed to be your landlord is a fraud, who are you paying rent to?
During the last Great Recession, some owners who had rented their homes to tenants abandoned their properties to allow the lender to foreclose on the homes. The tenants were left in limbo. They paid no rent and eventually were evicted when the homes were taken over by the lender.
You’re in a somewhat similar situation. The owner of the home has gone missing and hasn’t been found. Without an owner paying property taxes, the home may eventually get sold in the tax sale. However, you have the opportunity to bid at the tax sale and buy the home. You may not gain anything by paying the taxes. You are not the owner and don’t get an ownership interest in the home if you do pay the taxes.
You may be thinking that you can simply live in the home, pay the taxes and the home will eventually become yours. Well, that may be true. In some states, if you claim the home as your own, pay the taxes and treat the home as yours, you may be able to file a lawsuit in court after 21 years to get title to the home transferred into your name.
In some jurisdictions that time period may be shorter, even though the circumstances are similar. While you wait out the clock, you need to understand that the rightful owner of the home could always come and claim ownership of the home and kick you out. (After repaying the back taxes plus interest to you.)
When you go to the tax sale, you can bid the amount owed on the tax bill or try to outbid any other prospective buyer. Once you win the bid at the tax sale, you'd have to wait a year or two (or whatever is the prescribed period of time set by state law) for the redemption period to run out. Once the redemption period has passed, you can petition the court to issue the deed to the home to you. You would then record that deed and the property would become yours.
We’ve somewhat oversimplified the process for purposes of your question. You’d need to research further whether the home has other liens or problems on title and whether simply being the winning bidder at the tax sale and then paying future tax payments could ultimately get you ownership of the home.
Try to investigate the status of the title to the home. You might be able to get more information at the recorder of deeds or another office that handles the filing of property records. You then will have to understand how much is owed in unpaid taxes and see what the property is worth. If the unpaid taxes are $50,000 and the home is worth less than that, it might not be worth putting much more money into the home. On the other hand, if $3,000 is owed in taxes and the home is worth $100,000, you might very well want to be the highest bidder on the tax sale.
Keep in mind that other tax buyers may be thinking what you're thinking: that you only need to bid the $3,000 in back taxes (or whatever the number actually is) to get the property; but if other tax buyers suspect that the owner is missing and they, too, can get ownership of the home, the bidding may go up and may be much more than what is owed in taxes.
A real estate attorney may be able to give you more insight into the process. Good luck and tell us how things turn out.
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.