Tax foreclosure is the legal process your county can use to take your home if you get too far behind paying your property taxes.
It starts when the county files a summons and complaint against you in court. Until that happens, you are in “pre-foreclosure.” That’s when your taxes are officially declared late, and your case goes to the county prosecutor or your tax debt is sold to someone else.
"Pre-foreclosure" includes different stages with different steps to take to resolve your tax debt.
You get behind on property taxes
You usually have to pay your property taxes once at the beginning of the year and once in the middle of the year. Officially these are your “real estate taxes” or “real property taxes,” and they help pay for local schools and services.
If you’re getting behind on your property taxes, take the following steps:
- Contact your county treasurer. Ask about your options. Go to “Local Government and Community Resources” on this page to find contact information for your local treasurer.
- Try to work out a payment plan. In most cases, the county wants to work with you. You may be able to work out a payment plan or find another solution to pay your taxes and avoid foreclosure.
- Open your mail. Your county may contact you by regular mail, email or certified mail. Open your mail and respond.
The earlier you act the better your chances of reducing late-payment costs and avoiding foreclosure. Learn more about what to do if you’re getting behind on your property taxes.
Taxes are “certified delinquent”
If your property taxes are certified delinquent:
- They are officially declared late. The county auditor puts them on a public list called the “delinquent land list and duplicate.” It lists properties with late taxes and how much is due.
- Your costs go up. Interest and penalties continue to add up the longer the taxes go unpaid.
- You are at greater risk of foreclosure. If you don’t pay your property taxes within 60 days of the date they are certified delinquent, your case could be sent to the county prosecutor to start the foreclosure process.
- Ask about a delinquent tax contract. In most cases, you get at least one chance to enter an agreement called a “delinquent tax contract” with your county treasurer. It may last a few years, and you make payments over time. If you miss a payment, the contract will be canceled, unless the treasurer decides to give you another chance.
If you don’t work with the treasurer or pay your taxes, your case may be referred to the county prosecutor, or your tax debt may be sold to someone else.
Case goes to prosecutor or debt buyer
The county treasurer may send your case to the county prosecutor to start a tax foreclosure against you. Or, in some counties, the debt you owe — called a “lien” — is put up for sale. Whoever buys it can foreclose against you.
If your case goes to the county prosecutor:
- Try to find a solution. The prosecutor is the lawyer for the treasurer. They can’t be your personal lawyer, but you should try to work with them to avoid foreclosure.
- Don’t ignore letters. The prosecutor’s office may contact you to explain your situation, options available to you and how long you have to act. Pay attention to this information. This may be your last chance to avoid foreclosure.
If your tax debt is bought by someone else:
- You should get a notice. Your county must notify you before and after selling your tax debt, in most cases. Look for words like “tax lien sale” and “tax certificate.” The county also should explain how you can “redeem” or get back what’s being sold.
- The debt buyer gets the right to foreclose. The person or company that buys your tax debt — called the “certificate holder” — gets the same rights as the county to foreclose against you.
- They can’t start foreclosure for a year. The buyer must wait at least one year after buying your tax debt to start a foreclosure against you. Stay in your home during this time.
- Try to pay the full amount you owe. After a year, you can enter into an agreement with the tax debt buyer. Try to pay the full amount you owe, if you can, to avoid foreclosure. A foreclosure makes your costs go up and increases your risk of losing your home.
Foreclosure is the period from when a foreclosure complaint is filed against you in court to when your home is sold at a sheriff's sale and you are evicted. The tax foreclosure process can take anywhere from 6 months to more than a year. It depends on your case and your county.
Lawsuit filed in court
The foreclosure starts when the prosecutor or debt buyer files a foreclosure against you in court.
If a tax foreclosure complaint has been filed against you:
- Talk to a lawyer. Defending yourself from foreclosure can be complicated. Find a lawyer for legal advice or representation if you can. Find organizations that can connect you with a lawyer or other legal help on this page under “Legal Help and Lawyers.” If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may be able to get help from your local legal aid.
- File a foreclosure answer within 28 days. You must file an answer with the court within 28 days. This is true even if your foreclosure has been suspended or you are talking to your county about other options. If you do not file an answer, you will lose your home.
- Use this form to prepare your answer. Take it to your clerk of courts’ office. Find your clerk of courts on this page under "Local Government and Community Resources."
- Stay in your home. You have the right to stay in your home while the foreclosure process is ongoing. You don’t have to leave until your house is sold at a foreclosure auction. That could be months or over a year after the foreclosure court case starts.
- Keep working with the county. You may be able to enter mediation or work out a plan to keep your home.
Even if you are trying to work out an agreement, it’s important to keep responding to the court in a foreclosure case.
If you don’t respond within 28 days after a foreclosure complaint is filed against you, the court will issue a judgment against you.
The judgment will include the total amount of taxes owed plus other costs like interest, penalties and attorney fees.
If you work out an agreement, your foreclosure case may be dismissed before a judgment is filed against you.
Property is sold, you are evicted
If a judgment is filed against you:
- Your property is put up for sale. The county sheriff is usually responsible for holding the sale.
- A sale date is set. The date is advertised in newspapers or online for 3 weeks.
- Your property is sold at auction. You have the right to stay in your home until the property is sold at the foreclosure auction.
- You must leave your house. After your house is sold at a foreclosure auction, you will be evicted.
In some cases, money is left over after a tax foreclosure sale, and you have the right to claim it.
To find out about extra money in your case:
- Contact your county clerk of court’s office. Ask if there are “excess funds” in your case. Have your court case number ready.
- Apply to get the excess funds. Depending on how long it’s been since your house was sold at the auction, you may need to apply with the clerk of court’s office or the county treasurer’s office. They may have a special form you can use to apply for the excess funds.
Tax foreclosure can move faster than the normal foreclosure process. Even if you don’t have a mortgage, or if the house you are living in is paid off, you still owe property taxes. If you don’t pay them, you could end up in foreclosure.