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How to Check for Liens on a Property

Knowing how to find liens on a property is crucial. With NeighborWho, we can help you check for mortgages and HOA liens attached to a specific property. All you need is an address to start your next property lien search.

What is a property lien?

In short, a property lien means the homeowner has an outstanding debt on a house or another type of property. By placing a lien on the property, the creditor ensures the owner can't sell the property without satisfying the debt first. They can even force the sale of the property in some cases.

This is why it's important to check liens on a property—imagine putting an offer on a dream home only to find out you can’t possess the title until the seller clears their debt.

Voluntary vs. involuntary liens

Voluntary liens are willingly entered by the property owner to secure a loan. A common example of a voluntary lien is a mortgage. Involuntary liens are placed on a property without the owner's consent by an external party. Common examples of involuntary liens include tax liens, judgment liens and mechanic's liens.

What are the types of liens?

There are several types of liens. They all operate in more or less the same way; the difference is to whom the owner owes the money. Some property liens include:

Mortgage liens

A mortgage lien is a voluntary lien placed on a property by a lender as security for a mortgage loan. The lien gives the lender the right to foreclose on the property if the borrower fails to make mortgage payments. Mortgages are voluntary liens because the property owner willingly enters the lien agreement in order to provide the property as collateral for the debt.

Tax liens

A tax lien is an involuntary lien placed on a property by a government authority, such as the IRS or a local tax agency, for unpaid taxes. The lien gives the government the right to seize and sell the property to satisfy the tax debt.

Judgment liens

A judgment lien is an involuntary lien placed on a property by a court as a result of a lawsuit. The lien gives the plaintiff the right to collect a judgment amount from the proceeds of the property sale.

Mechanic's liens

A mechanic's lien is an involuntary lien placed on a property by a contractor or subcontractor who has not been paid for work done on the property. The lien gives the contractor the right to force the sale of the property to collect the unpaid debt.

HOA liens

A homeowners association (HOA) lien is an involuntary lien placed on a property by an HOA for unpaid fees or assessments. The lien gives the HOA the right to force the sale of the property to collect the unpaid debt.

How to get rid of tax liens on a property?

Yes, it is possible to buy a property that has a lien on it. The lien will usually need to be paid off as part of the purchase process. In most cases, the lien holder will have the right to demand payment of the outstanding debt before the property can be sold or transferred to a new owner.

This highlights the importance of running a property or title lien search. Ordinarily, sellers are aware of liens and understand that paying them off will mean a smaller return on the sale of the property. But without a search, it's possible that a lien isn't discovered until it's time to close. At best, closing may be delayed while the seller makes arrangements. At worst, the buyer's lender will deny financing and the deal will fall through.

Is it a good idea to buy a property with a lien on it?

Buying a property with a lien on it can be a good idea, depending on the circumstances. In general, if you're looking for a bargain or an investment property, one with a lien on it may lead to a lower sale price. Because the seller needs to pay off the lien, they have less leverage to negotiate—as long as the offer may help pay off the lien, the seller may be incentivized to consider it.

The risk to buyers when considering a property with a lien is typically low. That's because in most cases, lenders won't provide a loan for a property with a lien on it—it must be paid off, and that's the seller's responsibility. However, if you are somehow able to get the deed to a property with a lien on it (for example, via auction), it's possible that you could then be responsible for the lien.

Otherwise, if you're just looking for land or a home to purchase, you'll likely have a more straightforward experience limiting your search to properties with free and clear titles.

Can you buy a property that has a lien on it?

So you ran a property lien search and discovered a local, state or federal tax agency has placed a lien on your property due to a failure to pay the correct amount of property tax. Here are some options you may have to move forward.

Verify the accuracy of the lien

Before taking any action, it's important to verify the accuracy of the tax lien. Mistakes can occur, so make sure that the tax lien is legitimate and that the amount owed is correct. Unfortunately, tax liens are popular with scammers. Even if the lien appears to come from a legitimate entity, research the agency's phone number online and call to verify the lien.

If you believe the lien to be fraudulent or has been applied in error, you may be able to file an appeal. Filing an appeal depends on whether the tax lien is issued by the state or federal government. Federal tax liens can be appealed through the IRS; state tax liens are typically handled by each state's department of revenue.

Pay off the tax debt

The most straightforward way to remove a tax lien is to pay off the tax debt in full. Once the debt is paid, the tax agency will release the lien.

Negotiate a payment plan

If you can't pay off the tax debt in full, you may be able to negotiate a payment plan with the tax agency. This will allow you to pay off the debt over time and eventually have the lien released.

Wait for the statute of limitations to expire

In some cases, the statute of limitations may expire on the debt, which means the debtor can no longer enforce the lien. The length of the statute of limitations varies by state and by the type of lien. For example, federal tax liens expire after 10 years, but some other types of liens never expire. If you find a lien on your property, your best bet is to contact a real estate attorney for next steps.

This page is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. NeighborWho does not guarantee the comprehensiveness or accuracy of the information provided and you should not rely solely on NeighborWho’s data in order to determine whether or not a property has a lien or not. Before making a decision to purchase a property, you are strongly encouraged to also obtain a title search through a title company or attorney.