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Is it possible to find liens or unrecorded debt on a vacant lot?

Vacant property can feel like a clean slate, a fresh start.  But we need to be careful not to assume that just because there’s nothing there -- that there are no issues. On the contrary, seemingly invisible liens can be lurking where you expect them least.

Here’s a prime example: one of our property analysts recently received a file for a vacant lot that came to us without an address. The analyst checked the Folio (Parcel ID) against the property appraiser -- who also had no address associated with that lot. When she checked with various municipal departments, the property came back with no liens -- or apparently “clear”.

After a deeper dive, that analyst eventually came upon an address and the name of the owner at the time and tracked down a hidden utility lien that was filed almost 9 years ago--in 2007. After all of the interest and various fees accrued, it’s an issue that would cost nearly $3,000 to clear up -- not exactly the what most buyers want to run into after purchasing land.

Unrecorded debt, or liens on vacant lots

Just because there's nothing visible, it doesn't mean there aren't issues that could be lurking beneath the surface. Issues like:

  • Utilies. Obviously this is the example that we used above, but to reiterate: there could be an existing utility balance (not reaching "lien" status), that would eventually it would come to rear its ugly head, but not until after the buyer goes to build on the vacant lot and tries connect utilities.
  • Open or Expired Permits. It's possible that a permit was issued at some point, that never resulted in any work and so the permit expired. It's also possible that there's legacy permit issues if there had been a structure there before. Additionally, if the lot had a shed, or something of the like, it could be subject to permitting and building code problems. 
  • Special Assessments. There doesn't need to be a structure for a land owner to be assessed for special projects like lighting and roads. Assessments like this don't always show up on the taxes and there may be back payments due that can only be found by contacting the proper district.
  • Code Enforcement Violations. These are far an away the most common problem we find with vacant lots. Debris and unkempt grass on untended land often result in a code enforcement fine and when not brought into compliance, daily fines can accrue, as well as lot clearing liens depending on the municipality. 

 The only way to avoid missing these potential unforeseen problems is by doing a full municipal lien search

common misconceptions about lien searches

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