People who own real property have to pay property taxes. The government uses the money that these taxes generate to pay for schools, public services, libraries, roads, parks, and the like. Typically, the tax amount is based on a property's assessed value. If you have a mortgage on your home, the loan servicer might collect money as part of the monthly mortgage payment to later pay the property taxes. The servicer pays the taxes on the homeowner's behalf through an escrow account. But if the taxes aren't collected and paid through this kind of account, the homeowner must pay them directly.
When homeowners don't pay their property taxes, the overdue amount becomes a lien on the property. A lien is a claim against your property to ensure you'll pay the debt; it effectively makes the property act as collateral for the debt. All states have laws that allow the local government to sell a home through a tax sale process to collect delinquent taxes. Accordingly, homeowners in Massachusetts who fail to make timely payments of property taxes could lose their home after:
In most cases though, you'll get some time after the sale or taking to get current on the overdue amounts before losing ownership of the property.
Getting behind in paying your real property taxes in Massachusetts can lead to a tax sale, where the collector will sell your home at auction. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 43). But in some circumstances, the city or town may "take" the property rather than holding a sale. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 53).
Before a tax sale, the collector must publish notice of the sale in a newspaper. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 40). The collector must also post the notice in two or more public places 14 days before the sale. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 42).
At the sale, the property (or the smallest undivided part of the land which a purchaser is willing to take for the amount of taxes, interest, and charges due) is sold for the owed amount of taxes, interest, and charges. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 43). After the sale, the purchaser gets a deed to the property, subject to the right of redemption (see below). (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 45, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 64).
Before a taking, the collector must give you 14-day advance notice by serving it on you or publishing it and post the notice in two or more public places. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 53). The city or town then gets title to the property, subject to your right of redemption. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 64).
To get free and clear ownership of your home, the buyer who purchased it at the tax sale (or the city or town, if it got your home through a taking) must foreclose your right of redemption. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 64).
Many states give delinquent taxpayers the chance to pay off the amounts owed and keep the home. This process is called "redeeming" the property.
In many states, the homeowner can redeem the home after a tax sale by paying the buyer from the tax sale the amount paid (or by paying the taxes owed), plus interest, within a limited amount of time. Exactly how long the redemption period lasts varies from state to state, but usually, the homeowner gets at least a year from the sale to redeem the property.
In other states, though, the redemption period happens before the sale.
Under Massachusetts law, the purchaser who bought the home at the tax sale (or the city or town) generally must wait six months following the sale or taking before starting a foreclosure to eliminate your right of redemption. But you don't get a redemption period if the home is abandoned or the redemption amount exceeds the property's assessed value. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 65).
To eliminate the right of redemption, the purchaser, city, or town files a petition (a lawsuit) with the Massachusetts land court and the court enters a judgment foreclosing your redemption rights. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, § 65). Under Massachusetts law, you can redeem your home up until the purchaser, city, or town files its petition for foreclosure or the date set by the land court if you make an offer to redeem in an answer to the petition. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 60, §§ 62, 68). You might be able to redeem up until the court officially forecloses the right of redemption; talk to a lawyer to learn more.
Property tax liens almost always have priority over other liens, including mortgage liens and deed of trust liens. (For purposes of this discussion, the terms "mortgage" and "deed of trust" are used interchangeably.) Because a property tax lien has priority, if you lose your home through a tax sale process, mortgages get wiped out. So, the loan servicer will usually advance money to pay delinquent property taxes to prevent this from happening. The servicer will then demand reimbursement from you (the borrower).
The terms of most mortgage contracts require the borrower to stay current on the property taxes. If you don't reimburse the servicer for the tax amount it paid, you'll be in default under the terms of the mortgage, and the servicer can foreclose on the home in the same manner as if you had fallen behind in monthly payments.
After demanding repayment of the amount it paid for the taxes, penalties, plus interest (and assuming you repay this tax debt), your servicer will probably set up an escrow account for the loan. Each month, you'll have to pay approximately one-twelfth of the estimated annual cost of property taxes—and perhaps other expenses, like insurance—along with your usual monthly payment of principal and interest. This money goes into the escrow account.
The downside to having an escrow account is that you'll have to make a bigger payment to the servicer each month. On the positive side, having an escrow account saves you from having to come up with a large amount of money when tax bills, and perhaps other bills, are due.
If you're having trouble paying your property taxes, you might be able to reduce your tax bill or get extra time to pay. If you're already facing a property tax sale or taking in Massachusetts and have questions or need help redeeming your property, consider talking to a foreclosure lawyer, tax lawyer, or real estate lawyer.