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A house was sold for unpaid taxes. How can I become the owner?

There are certain steps you would need to follow to gain ownership of a property that was sold for unpaid taxes. (iStock)

Q: I have lived in a house for the past three years and received a letter stating the house was sold for unpaid taxes. I’ve tried reaching the homeowners, but they won’t respond. If I pay the back taxes on the house can I claim ownership in West Virginia?

A: The short answer to your questions is no. You can’t simply pay the real estate taxes on a home and then become the owner of that home. At best, you have to follow the taxing authorities delinquent tax legal process to obtain title to the home, which might eventually lead to you owning the property.

Here is a rough outline of the steps you would need to follow to gain ownership of the property. First, find out when the taxing authority holds the tax lien sale. At that tax lien sale, you would make a bid to buy the tax lien. If you win the bid, you would become the tax lien buyer.

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According to Nolo, the homeowners would have around 18 months in West Virginia to redeem the property. To do that, they would have to pay whatever they owe in back taxes plus fees and interest to you to redeem the property. In that scenario, the tax lien buyer would collect the interest owed and perhaps some of the fees, but would lose the property.

(Generally, if no one buys the tax lien, the state auditor or tax collector will get it, and then the interest rate the homeowner will have to pay to redeem the taxes will generally be higher.)

However, if after 18 months (or up to two years, depending on the laws of each state), the homeowner does not redeem the taxes, you, the tax buyer, can petition the court to issue a tax deed to you. That tax deed would give you the ownership in the home.

Whether you’re a tenant at the home or you live in the home with permission from the owner, you’re too late to bid on the house’s back taxes. The fact that the tax lien was sold means that a third party has purchased them. This tax buyer is in line to become the owner of the home should the current owner fail to pay the taxes owed to the taxing authority.

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Having said that, you can talk to an attorney or real estate tax specialist in West Virginia to find out if there are any other laws on the books that could give you the right to the ownership of the home. In very special circumstances, you could become the owner, but it’s unlikely in your situation.

For example, if an owner abandons a property, does not pay the real estate taxes, does not make any claim of ownership for the home, never visits the home and does not maintain or pay for the maintenance of the home, some states allow third parties to claim ownership of the home after seven or up to 21 years, but only if that third party lives in the home, pays for the taxes and upkeep of the home, and has evidence to prove that the owner has had no contact with the home for the required time period.

Your letter doesn’t seem to indicate that you fall into the latter category, but only you know the facts of your situation. If you decide to pursue this, you’d better move fast as the tax buyer will eventually get the tax deed for the home and then become the rightful owner.

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,

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