If you fail to pay your property taxes, the past-due amount becomes a lien on your home. This type of lien almost always has priority over other liens, including mortgages. Generally, when taxes remain unpaid, the taxing authority will eventually sell the lien (and if you don't pay the past-due amount to the lien purchaser, that party can foreclose or use some other method to get title to the home), or sell the property itself in a tax sale. Though, in some places, a sale isn't held; instead, the taxing authority executes its lien by taking title to the home. State law then generally provides a procedure for the taxing authority to dispose of the property, usually by selling it. In other jurisdictions, the taxing authority uses a foreclosure process before holding a sale.
If you lose your home to a property tax sale in California, you generally can't get it back, except in limited circumstances. You do, however, usually get five years after you fall behind in taxes to pay off the delinquent amounts before the sale can take place. That's because California law provides you with the right to "redeem" the home (get current on the overdue amounts, plus interest and costs), which will prevent the loss of your property.
So, generally, people in California have two options to save their home from a tax sale: Redeeming the property before the sale or setting aside (overturning) the sale after it happens. If you don't redeem, you'll lose your chance to keep your California home unless you're able to invalidate the completed tax sale, which doesn't happen very often.
In most states, delinquent taxpayers get some time during which they can redeem the home after a tax sale by paying the buyer the amount paid at the sale or paying the taxes owed, plus interest, penalties, and costs. In some states, like California, the redemption period occurs before the tax sale.
Again, in California, the five-year redemption period happens before the tax sale. Under state law, the tax collector usually can't sell your home until five years pass after the property becomes tax defaulted. (Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code § 3691). You can pay off the delinquent amounts during this time and stop a tax sale from happening.
But you don't get the right to redeem the home after the sale. Your right to redeem expires at the close of business on the last business day before the sale date. (Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code § 3706, § 3707). If you send in the redemption amount via mail or any other method, the tax collector must receive it before that deadline. (Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code § 3707).
However, if your home doesn't sell or the purchaser who bought it at the sale backs out of the deal, your right to redeem revives. (Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code § 3693.1, § 3707).
To redeem the home, you'll have to pay:
After the tax sale occurs, you might be able to get your home back by convincing the board of supervisors (the body that supervises the operation of the county government) to rescind (invalidate) the sale. You must show that:
The procedures for asking for a rescission are complicated, and you'll have to ask for a rescission by a certain deadline, usually a year after the tax deed is executed. (Cal. Rev. & Tax. Code § 3725). Getting your home back through this method is usually difficult and doesn't happen very often. You'll most likely need an attorney's help if you want to try to get the sale rescinded.
Even though you'll get some time to redeem your California home before losing it to a tax sale, sale, in most cases, it's better to take action earlier to try to make your taxes more affordable. You could, for example:
If you want more information about property tax and redemption laws in California, consider talking to a foreclosure lawyer, tax lawyer, or real estate lawyer who has experience with property tax issues. To learn more about property taxes and other aspects of homeownership in general, get Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home by Ilona Bray, J.D., Attorney Ann O'Connell, and Marcia Stewart.