Legal Question in Real Estate Law in California

If I pay the back taxes on an adjacent property for three years, will I own the property?

Asked on 7/14/13, 1:00 pm

2 Answers from Attorneys

Bryan Whipple Bryan R. R. Whipple, Attorney at Law

No, more likely you will have made a large donation to the county treasury.

You are probably thinking of the concept of "adverse possession," sometimes referred to as "squatters' rights" and related to the concept of "prescriptive easement."

The general rule regarding obtaining ownership by adverse possession is that you must be in continuous possession of the parcel, your possession must be adverse to rights of the owner, and you must pay all the property taxes and assessments coming due for a period of five years. Each of these aspects of adverse possession has technical legal interpretations.....for instance, "continuous" doesn't mean you have to be present on the property, in person, 24/7 for five full years. It is sufficient, generally, that the owner hasn't come around and kicked you out in the 59th month. Also, the possession needing to be "adverse" means, in general, that the owner didn't rent it to you, or give you permission to camp on his land free of charge, or something of that nature.

In California, one cannot lose his land to an adverse possessor so long as he pays his property taxes. Therefore, when someone else pays them, that someone else MAY be taking a step in the direction of becoming the owner. But, it takes five years; there are other requirements in addition to payment of the taxes (i.e., possession); and, if the owner also pays the taxes, the county will probably treat him as having paid, maybe returning your checks, maybe not.

I'd advise studying the California requirements for adverse possession, which are set forth in obscure 19th-Century legalese in sections 315 to 330 of the Code of Civil Procedure, and can also be found in various on-line postings. Finally, note that after completing an apparently-successful adverse possession, you'll probably want to go to court with a quiet-title action to get your ownership established as a matter of public record.

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Answered on 7/14/13, 2:59 pm

Anthony Roach Law Office of Anthony A. Roach

I don't see how Mr. Whipple inferred that you were talking about adverse possession, also known as squatting. The fact that you mention that it is an adjacent property clues me in that you already have property and are not squatting in some property you don't own.

I think you are asking a question about buying tax foreclosed property.

Real property on which taxes are delinquent becomes “tax defaulted property” by operation of law and declaration of the tax collector. “‘Tax-defaulted property’ is real property which is subject to a lien for taxes which, by operation of law and by declaration of the tax collector, are in default and from which the lien of the taxes for which it was declared tax-defaulted has not been removed.” (Rev. & Tax. Code § 126.)

The property remains subject to the original owner’s rights of redemption until those rights are terminated. “Tax-defaulted property may be redeemed until the right of redemption is terminated.” (Rev. & Tax. Code § 4101.)

If the property is not redeemed within five years after it becomes tax defaulted, the property is subject to sale by the tax collector. (Rev. & Tax. Code § 3691 subd. (a)(Emphasis added.)

The original owner’s rights to redeem the property terminate prior to a sale to a private party from the tax collector, unless the property is not sold. “The right of redemption shall terminate at the close of business on the last business day prior to the date the sale begins.” (Rev. & Tax. Code § 3707 subd. (a).) If the property is not sold, the original owner’s right to redeem the property is revived. “The right of redemption revives if the property is not sold.” (Rev. & Tax. Code § 3707 subd. (d).)

A sale of property at a tax foreclosure sale conveys title free and clear of any encumbrances, except liens for taxes and assessments. “The deed conveys title to the purchaser free of all encumbrances of any kind existing before the sale ….” (Rev. & Tax. Code § 3712.)

To summarize all of this law, just paying the unpaid back taxes alone will not give you the property. You would have to pay the taxes when you purchased at the tax foreclosure sale, which are usually done at the five (5) year point through what is called a sealed bidding system, with adjacent owners being given notice.

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Answered on 7/15/13, 10:09 am

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