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.
When you fall behind in your property taxes in Pennsylvania, your home may be sold at an upset tax sale under Pennsylvania's Real Estate Tax Sale Law to satisfy the debt. If the property doesn't sell at the upset tax sale, then the tax claim bureau may proceed with a judicial tax sale. (A judicial tax sale goes through the court system.) If a property does not sell at the judicial sale, it goes on a repository list.
Generally, Pennsylvania law doesn't allow redemption (paying off the debt to reclaim the property) after homeowners lose their home due to unpaid property taxes. But in some circumstances and some counties, homeowners get the right to redeem. Or you might be able to work out a deal to pay off the delinquent amount or invalidate the sale.
Property tax sales in Pennsylvania are usually governed by the state's Real Estate Tax Sale Law. Again, under this law, if you get behind in your property taxes, your home is first put up for sale at an upset tax sale. If the property doesn't sell, the home is then usually sold at a judicial tax sale. If a property doesn't sell at the judicial sale, it goes on the repository list. For more details on each of these processes, see What Happens If I Don't Pay Property Taxes in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania's Real Estate Tax Sale Law says that you can't redeem your home after a sale. (72 P.S. § 5860.501). But you might be able to redeem in some circumstances.
County commissioners have the discretion to allow the redemption of property the county purchased at a tax sale if all taxes with interest and costs due, less any penalties, are paid. (72 P.S. § 5879). Also, if the county purchased the property at a tax sale, commissioners have the discretion to enter into a compromise agreement with the owner for less than the whole amount due, subject to court confirmation. (72 P.S. § 5876).
Under the state's Municipal Claims and Tax Lien law, some counties provide a nine-month redemption period during which you may redeem the home. (53 P.S. § 7293). A vacant property, however, isn't eligible for redemption. (53 P.S. § 7293(c)).
To find out if you have the right to redeem in your situation, consider talking to a lawyer.
If the county allows the redemption of property the county purchased at a tax sale, you'll have to pay all taxes plus interest and costs due, less any penalties, to redeem. (72 P.S. § 5879).
In some cases, you might be able to invalidate a tax sale. After an upset tax sale, the tax claim bureau must file a report (a return) with the court. Within 30 days after the court confirms the return, you can file an objection with the court if the proper procedures weren't followed during the sale. (72 P.S. § 5860.607). For instance, if you weren't given proper notice of the sale, you might decide to file an objection.
If the court agrees with you, it can decide to invalidate the tax sale. (72 P.S. § 5860.607). The procedures and rules for filing objections or exceptions with the court can be complicated, so consider hiring a lawyer to help you if you want to challenge the tax sale procedures.
Even though you might get some time to redeem your Pennsylvania home after a tax sale, in most cases, it's better to take action before you fall behind in the first place to try to make your taxes more affordable. Before your taxes become delinquent, you could:
If you want more information about property tax and redemption laws in Pennsylvania, 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.