What is a 'Tax Lien Certificate'

A tax lien certificate is a certificate of claim against a property that has a lien placed upon it as a result of unpaid property taxes. Tax lien certificates are generally sold to investors through an auction process. The certificate enables the investor to collect unpaid taxes plus the applicable prevailing rate of interest, which can range from 8 to more than 30%, depending on the jurisdiction.

BREAKING DOWN 'Tax Lien Certificate'

The term of tax lien certificates typically ranges from one to three years.

After an investor places a winning bid for a specific tax lien certificate, a lien is placed on the property and a certificate is issued to the investor detailing the outstanding taxes and penalties on the property. Not all states, counties or municipalities offer tax liens. Some states, such as California, only perform tax sales on defaulted property, resulting in the winning bidder becoming the legal owner of the property in question.

How Tax Liens are Sold

Most tax lien sales auctions are conducted by the county or municipality where the property is located. For a property to be eligible, it must be considered tax-defaulted for a minimum period of time depending on local regulation. Instead of bidding on an amount for the property, the interested parties bid on the interest rate they are willing to receive. The investor who bids the lowest rate wins the auction and is issued the tax lien certificate.

Rate of Return on Tax Lien Certificates

Spurred by the high state-mandated rates of interest, tax lien certificates may offer rates of return that are substantially higher than those offered by other investments. Tax liens generally have precedence over other liens, such as mortgages. If the property owner fails to pay the back taxes, the investor could potentially acquire the property for pennies on the dollar. Acquiring a property in that manner is a rare occurrence, since most tax liens are redeemed well before the property goes to foreclosure.

Associated Risks of Tax Lien Certificates

Negative aspects of tax lien certificates include the requirement for the investor to pay for the tax lien certificate in full within a very short period of time, usually one to three days. These certificates are also highly illiquid, since there is no secondary trading market for them. Investors in tax lien certificates also have to undertake significant due diligence and research to ensure that the underlying properties have an appropriate assessed value.

An example regarding the need for due diligence when researching tax lien certificates is a two-acre lot that may initially seem to be a good value, but it's actually a strip of land that is only 3 feet wide by 5 miles long. This renders the land unusable for many endeavors, such as building a home or a business.

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