Once a property has been sold at a tax sale, that property suffers from a title defect. The former owner can file suit to recover his old property at any time, claiming that he did not receive proper service of process of the then pending tax sale. Service of process is a constitutional issue that can not be eliminated by city ordinance or other local measure.
Once a tax sale takes place, the only way to eliminate with certainty the resulting title defect is to file a quiet title action against the former owner (or have the former owner sign a deed in favor of the buyer). These curative actions are expensive and uncertain. It is impossible to determine how much such an action will cost because it is unknown whether the former owner will fight or whether the buyer can even find the former owner.
For this reason many former tax sale properties sit with title defects unresolved. With unresolved title defects, such a property usually can not be sold or financed. Without financing, the property cannot be fixed or renovated. The properties continue to deteriorate, contributing to blight within the city.
An example of how such a prior tax sale can create problems for the current owner was recently provided in the case of Steinbacher v. Northumberland County Tax Claim Bureau (decided by the Commonwealth Court in May 2010) (510 C.D. 2009). (I will not bore you with all of the legal details.) The appeals court decided that a prior owner could challenge a tax sale if the tax claim bureau had searched only a "single directory" to find the prior owner before selling the property at a tax sale. The court held that a single directory search was insufficient.
This ruling is not exactly groundbreaking. Tax sales are overturned often for notice-related issues. This case is simply a recent example. Former owners have many arguments to use as they try to show a court that they did not receive proper notice of a tax sale. (This decision applies statewide and is not limited to Northumberland County.)
Who should be interested in decisions like this?
- Any investor that is tempted to buy properties at a tax sale and who wants to know what legal challenges he might face;
- Any city government that is tempted to impose greater fees, costs and duties on non-owner occupied properties, without realizing that title defects like this one tend to make it impossible to finance repairs, regardless of how strong the city building code or inspection ordinance might be.