Tax Lien Certificate

DEFINITION of 'Tax Lien Certificate'

A certificate of claim against property that has a lien placed upon it as a result of unpaid property taxes. Tax lien certificates are generally sold to investors by most counties and municipalities in the United States through an auction process. Subsequent to a winning bid made by an investor for a specific tax lien certificate, a lien is placed on the property and a certificate issued to the investor detailing the outstanding taxes and penalties on the property.

The tax lien certificate therefore enables the investor to collect unpaid taxes plus the prevailing rate of interest applicable to such certificates, which can range from 8 to more than 30%, depending on the jurisdiction. The term of tax lien certificates typically ranges from one to three years.

BREAKING DOWN 'Tax Lien Certificate'

Thanks to 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. As well, since tax liens generally have precedence over other liens such as mortgages, should the property owner fail to pay the back taxes, the investor could potentially acquire the property for pennies on the dollar. However, this is a rare occurrence, since the vast majority of tax liens are redeemed well before the property goes to foreclosure.

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 value and are not worthless.

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