Delinquent property taxes stay with the house. This means the title on your new house belongs to you, but there is a serious cloud over the property because of the tax issue. In the case of unpaid taxes, it's not just a cloud -- it's a thunderstorm. Tax authorities have the right to take your home and sell the property if the taxes -- even those from a former owner -- remain unpaid.
If you didn't catch a tax lien when obtaining your title report at closing, any unpaid taxes left by the previous owner will now become your responsibility.
State and local governments collect funds through various sources, including assessments put on your house. Most localities combine all of the various local taxes into one property tax bill. When homeowners fail to pay bills, the county or city takes legal action to collect the tax payment. The ultimate recourse for the government agency is to attach -- put a lien on -- the property for the delinquent taxes.
Title companies research the chain of ownership of a property. Your new home typically undergoes a preliminary and final title search before your sale closes. Mortgage lenders require a title report listing all the former owners and a list of any loans and liens on your new house. Any unpaid items are called "clouds" over the title. These clouds must be resolved before your new house closes. If you paid for a report and weren't presented with the final title document, then you can take legal action against your lender, real estate agent, title or escrow officers or the attorney handling your home sale. If you did receive a copy of the report and failed to do anything about a cloud, you might be out of luck for any financial recourse.
The best way to protect yourself from an old tax lien on your property involves paying for a title insurance policy. The preliminary title research and official title report searches out any unpaid bills attached to your property, but it's not foolproof. Occasionally the lien fails to show up in a timely manner, and the title company doesn't discover it before your house closes. If a tax lien does appear, the insurance pays to cover your costs and fees. You pay for title insurance in one lump sum, and the fees are based on the price of your property. Your mortgage lender usually requires you to buy a title insurance policy as part of the property title package.
You have three choices to resolve the cloud over your house. You can let your title insurance solve the problem with your help. If you don't have title insurance, you can pay the former owner's unpaid taxes and hope to collect something from the former owner by suing in court for the unpaid tax bill. If the unpaid tax bill is significant, you might need to sell your house to pay the past due taxes or allow the government agency to take your house in payment for the taxes, if you don't have the cash to pay the tax bill.