What to Find Out from the Local Tax Authority

Your knowledge of how counties, townships and municipalities work provides the life's blood of your business. As you gather information about any one of the nearly 3100 counties as well as the 2000 non-county property tax collecting agencies, you are preparing the soil of the field that is your business. With adequate preparation, you can sow seeds that will create an abundant and reliable harvest in the future. This makes life much easier on you than working as a hunter-gatherer, always hustling to find whatever you can.

Ultimately we want to obtain lists of leads: properties that are tax delinquent or tax defaulted. Before we can gain any benefits from these lists, we want to learn the ground rules for working in the government entity that supplies us the lists. Let's keep in mind that the 5000 plus separate government agencies in the U.S. all operate according to their own policies and procedures. There are no federal regulations on the collection of property taxes. We find similarities in how things are done everywhere we go, but many differences, as well.

When gathering information from government employees, it is important to be respectful and friendly. Their job rarely gives them fulfillment or appreciation, so your appreciation of their help will go a long way. Remember, too, that if one person won’t help, you can find another who will. Generally the higher you go in the hierarchy, the more helpful people tend to become (how do you think they got promoted?).

What is it that you want to know?

Qualifying a local government tax-collecting agency is very simple. Once you have learned enough about the way the tax collector’s office works, you can decide whether or not you want to add that entity to your client list. You can then decide whether that location is a good place to do your business.

It is really quite simple; if you know the answers to the following questions, you now know the county and how it operates. Your best orientation to take with these questions is that they highlight points of information you wish to know - whether you have to ask or not:

  1. Who handles tax liens for the county (Treasurer, Tax Collector, Sheriff, Tax Assessor, Trustee)? In reality, the more exact question would be, "which county agency handles the sale of tax-delinquent properties?” We want to find out who sells the properties or liens at auction; that would be the department that can answer the rest of these questions.

    The logical first step would be to look at the county Web site. The best of these sites supply excellent information about the tax sales process in that location, provide information on specific properties with an online, public-accessible database, and post lists of properties involved in the next auction. Some counties actually conduct the auction online, so you don’t have to travel to participate.

    If you can get everything you need to answer these questions from the Web site, that will give you more time to research more counties. But don’t be afraid to use the telephone to obtain information you cannot get otherwise. You will find it is much easier to get information from a person who senses that you have already put in some effort to gather information and that you know something about the county.

  2. Does the county sell tax lien certificates or tax deeds when it has an auction? Bear in mind that the article on this site titled “How the States Do It” outlines for you whether a given state sells deeds or liens, and contains a map to show this. Therefore, with few exceptions, you won't need to ask this with the sole purpose of finding out the answer. Furthermore, it might seem silly to ask a question you already know the answer to.

    On the other hand, this can be a springboard to further conversation. You might want to phrase is something like this: “So, Marybeth, it's my understanding that when you have a tax sale, you sell a lien certificate. Is that correct?” When she confirms this, you can continue with more questions: “And what triggers the redemption period, the auction date or the date of sale?” or “How long does the redemption period run?” You are building rapport with this: Marybeth feels good representing the county in an official capacity, and this is elementary information for her.

  3. How many properties per year on the average come up for auction, especially in areas that sell deeds. If the county typically has only one or two properties a year, it may not be worth your time to continue with that area. If it has 15 - 20 deeds, or several hundred or more liens, that may be worthwhile.

  4. What is the date of the next auction and how often do they hold an auction? In many areas, the auction comes once a year. Some states conduct it on the same date in all counties, whereas others may stagger it among different counties over the space of several months. Texas and Georgia can hold auctions on the first Tuesday of each month (although sparsely populated counties may not have anything to offer every month). Deed sales in Florida occur whenever certificate holders petition for a foreclosure: potentially this could be any week of the year; meanwhile all lien sales in Florida come up during the month of May.

    You want to put dates on an annual master calendar of all events you are aware of so that you have a regular and steady business.

  5. At what point does the property owner lose the right to redeem the property by paying the taxes due? In other words, what is the date of termination of the owner's right of redemption? If this is a county that sells deeds, you want to know how soon after the onset of tax delinquency the property is eligible for auction. In a lien sale situation, find out how long the redemption period runs and exactly when it begins.

  6. What does the county do with the properties that don't sell at an auction? This is a way to find out whether the county has over-the-counter sales available - an alternate way of purchasing properties. Over-the-counter is a generic term for properties that the county owns and wishes to sell. In some areas they are called Negotiated Sales, or Repository Sales, or Surplus Properties, or Struck-Off Sales. The only way to know they are available is to ask.

  7. How can a person obtain a list of properties that will be available at the next auction? (Will the list appear on a Web site, can they mail it to you, is it published in a local newspaper? What is the procedure for this particular county?) Find out when this list becomes available and put that on your master calendar, as well.


You should keep in mind that we live in the information age, and that the repository of most information is the Internet. We like to keep things as simple as possible; therefore, we suggest that you do as much research of the counties online as you can. Then you can fill in the knowledge gaps with telephone conversation.

Most counties these days have a Web site, and many of these have excellent information available at the click of a mouse, 24 hours a day. The good sites provide extensive information on the tax sale procedure, with dates, requirements and protocols; of they post the lists of properties for auction online well in advance. The assessor’s sites frequently provide information about the individual properties in the county, along with interactive GIS (Geographic Information System) maps.

There is wisdom in taking advantage of whatever technical tools we have. If you already know something about the county's operation – even something about what life is like in that county – you will feel more confident and gain increased credibility when you do call in for more data. But it works best when you start online.

If you keep thinking about what you want to do or what you hope will happen, you don't do it, and it won't happen.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterdamus (1466-1536, Dutch humanist and theologiean)

Our ultimate freedom is the right and power to decide how anybody or anything outside ourselves will affect us.

Steven R. Covey (1932 - , American author, e.g., "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.")