With the current real estate hiccup going on in the U.S., more and more people are losing their homes because they failed to pay their home mortgages. But what happens to the homes is something few people think about. This can be a very good real estate investment opportunity, and one can quickly earn profits in a very short amount of time.
The strategy in question is known as tax lien investing, and it can be a terrific way to diversify an investment portfolio and to realize potentially significant returns. However, it is not a form of passive investing; a lot of work is required to make it work, and nothing is guaranteed. Therefore, it is crucial to learn what you can about tax lien investing before attempting it and make sure that it's even something that makes sense for you.
Tax Lien Basics
Governments collect property taxes and use them to fund a variety of services and benefits for the greater good. These services and benefits include police departments, fire departments, public schools, public libraries, roads and other infrastructure. As long as all property owners pay their taxes when due, local governments can operate effectively. However, especially during tough economic times, property owners don't always pay their tax obligations in full or on time. Since local governments need tax revenues quickly, they often sell tax liens that they have placed on properties to interested investors – and that's where tax lien investing comes into play.
Property owners in the U.S. pay property taxes that are based on the assessed value of their homes. Property tax rates vary by state. In Hawaii, the average property tax rate is only 0.27%; in New Jersey, it is 2.35%. Across the U.S., the national average is around 1.5%, and the typical homeowner pays an average of $2,149 per year in property taxes.
When a property owner fails to pay their property taxes, the amount that is owed becomes a tax lien. This lien prevents the property owner from selling or refinancing their property until the lien is satisfied. Naturally, this incentivizes most people to pay the taxes that they owe; however, it may take some time for that to happen.
Since counties and other local governments can't wait for property owners to come up with what they owe, they often choose to sell tax lien certificates at public auction. How these sales are conducted varies from municipality to municipality, but they generally fall into two categories. In one scenario, bidders bid down the interest rate on a lien; the bidder willing to accept the lowest interest rate wins the certificate. In the other scenario, bidders bid up the premium that they are willing to pay for the certificate. The bidder willing to pay the highest premium wins the certificate.
Either way, the tax lien sale process benefits investors and local municipalities alike. Investors gain the potential to realize significant returns on their initial investment in the form of interest payments on the amount owed, and municipalities benefit by recouping the property taxes that they are owed more quickly.
It's important to note that tax lien sales are not held in all states. Currently, they are allowed in 29 states plus the District of Columbia. Therefore, it's important to find out whether they are held in your state. And yes, you'll want to stick with tax lien certificates in your area – you will have to do a lot of research into the underlying properties, including driving by and checking them out.
How To Earn Through Tax Liens
If a homeowner has defaulted on his payment, then the mortgaging bank will start the pre-foreclosure process. A tax lien will then be issued for the property so that the right to retain the property can be gained. You can do real estate investing in tax liens for a certain property that has been issued a lien and put out for an auction sale. You can earn profit from this because the state will pay fixed interest on a tax lien, and others will start the bidding price at auctions in the amount of the lien. Suppose the tax lien is unpaid during the duration of the redemption period. In that case, all other mortgages and liabilities on the house are extinguished, and the title to the property will be cleared. The investor will now own his or her new property with a clean title. However, if the owner can pay the property's liability, the investor can still earn through interest earned on the lien. Real estate investing in this manner can lead to profits in both ways.
Real Estate Investing Through Auctions
Sales of properties by tax-distressed owners can be a very good deal. With that said, you'll need to find out if your real estate investing opportunity is going to be worth it. Check the property location beforehand, because you might be buying something worthless, like purchasing a piece of land that is routinely flooded. If you are able to acquire and own a piece of land legally, you can participate in property auctions as well. But, you'll have to have cash on hand or in easy access, because auction sites will usually require that those who win the bidding on their chosen properties to pay a down payment or the full amount in a short span of time, if not cash up front. This is not an investment to be made for those without capital.
Most counties hold tax lien auctions on an annual basis. You'll want to contact your local county to find out when their tax lien auctions are held so you have time to prepare. In particular, you will want to learn about how the county conducts its auctions, including requirements for bidding.
These days, most counties and other municipalities hold tax lien auctions over the internet. Typically, you have to register ahead of time for the right to participate in the online auction. You can expect to pay a registration fee for this, so it's important to factor in calculating how much you stand to make. The fee varies from place to place but is usually around $100.
Once you're registered, you will be assigned a bidding identification number and given login information. When the auction starts, you will be able to bid on the certificates that interest you. Counties typically release lists of the tax lien certificates available for auction a few weeks beforehand. It's crucial to obtain this list and investigate it carefully. That's because you need to perform due diligence to ensure that the certificate is worth your while. Most of the time, this involves finding out the condition of the underlying property.
After obtaining the list, whittle it down to options that look the most promising to you. First, set a budget, and then eliminate any certificates that exceed it. Next, choose a property type to focus on. For example, if you are mostly interested in interest income, you'll want to focus on tax lien certificates on single-family homes with mortgages. Some investors choose to focus on commercial properties or on undeveloped land. There are pluses and minuses to all of these options, so it's vital to learn the ins and outs before getting started.
Starting Up Your Own Real Estate Investing Business
You can always start up your own business in the real estate investing industry. Given that you have enough capital and enough knowledge of the state rules on tax liens in your area, you can start investing in property tax liens immediately. One of the most important things to do when doing business in this nature is to check the property liens you'll be buying. Physical inspection is needed, but since it can be so time-consuming, limit your searches to somewhere you can drive to. A real estate investing business will also require that you have adequate knowledge of the legal processes involved, since tax-distressed sales by homeowners will include banks and other institutions, most notably the government. There is a potential to earn a high profit with just a few pieces of properties sold. Still, you can also spread the profit out and sell properties for a smaller markup, provided that the turnover for those profits will be faster, so you can move on to other properties for sale. A distress sale is a great investment opportunity, but one should always be careful since at auctions, you won't know if the property you're buying is a good buy, and not a lemon. You should also check if the property owner is not on the verge of bankruptcy because the IRS can override your lien and take first priority and your real estate investing opportunity away from you.
Is Tax Lien Investing Right for You?
As promising as all of this may sound, don't get ahead of yourself. Since the potential returns for tax lien investing are so good, the associated risks are often quite high. For one thing, there's no secondary market for tax lien certificates. For the duration of the redemption period – typically six months to three years – you won't be able to sell. Therefore, you must be willing to play the long game.
Although rare, another risk is that the property taxes are never paid, and you have to initiate foreclosure proceedings. In some cases, the value of the tax lien certificate exceeds that of the underlying property. The certificate expires once the redemption period ends, and you are left with no choice but to sell. Therefore, you could end up losing significant amounts of money if you don't do enough research.
The bottom line is that if you're not willing to assume the responsibilities of property ownership, tax lien investing isn't right for you.