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Seized property for sale at auction

There is a white sign with “Auction Today” printed in red with a large arrow pointing to the right to direct visitors as they approach the steps to the entrance.
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VPM News Focal Point
The delinquent tax property auction is an everyday occurrence in America. Should it be?

Tax levies and losses bring people together in government meeting rooms, in auditoriums, on courthouse steps and even at country clubs, as properties with unpaid taxes are auctioned to the highest bidders. Except for developers and investors, not many people talk about the people and the stories behind those properties that change hands to pay the localities’ bills.


ANGIE MILES: There are few places in America as emotionally charged as a delinquent tax auction. Standing or seated, sometimes side by side, are people excited to bid and get a bargain on a home or some land—a place to make an investment or to build a dream—and people who are desperate and destitute, bracing for the loss of all they own, and unable to stop it. It might be a financial downturn or confusion about the tax process. It could be complications of heir’s rights that arise when an elder dies without a will. But for each of the auction winners and property losers, there is a story.

LINDA QUARLES ARENCIBIA (LOUISA RESIDENT): I'm looking for some moss-covered burial stones. Yeah, this is it, this is it. This is it.

I know when I first found the burial stone mound, it was a sense that my beginning is there, you know? And if I detach myself from that, I detach myself in part from knowing who I am, how I came to be, who the folks were that I came to be from. And so, I don't like the idea of losing those connections. My family has owned property in Louisa and Fluvanna counties since at least 1867, I would say, up to the present. And it's only in this generation, in the last couple of years, that we stand at risk of losing that.

JAMES ELLIOTT (TAX COLLECTION ATTORNEY): I think one of the difficult things about this job is that there are landowners that have fallen on tough times. The cities and counties depend on revenue, primarily from real estate taxes, to pay the bills of the city and the county. When people don't pay their real estate taxes, that puts a burden on the people that do pay their real estate taxes. We do work out payment plans as often as we can, but if they don't live up to the payment plan, I really have no other choice but to proceed with the collection.

AUCTIONEER: I'd like to welcome you here to the James City County boardroom in Williamsburg, Virginia.

ANDREW NEVILLE (ATTORNEY, TAXING AUTHORITY CONSULTING SERVICES): Once all of the required elements are met, then we schedule a public auction.

AUCTIONEER: 70 thou, 71, 72. 71 on the floor, got to be $72,000.

ANDREW NEVILLE: Many of the people who bid at the auctions, especially in circumstances where long narrow strips of land next to someone else’s land, are the adjoining landowners. There are times where developers are high bidders. There are circumstances, sometimes, where localities end up being high bidders, and in some circumstances, again, sometimes the former owner, one of the heirs, may be the high bidder at tax sale. And then they have gotten clean, clear title to the property in a way that is much more efficient than a partitioned suit. So, it could be any number of individuals.

In an ideal situation, the high bidder would pay the purchase price, the money would be distributed to the various individuals, to the costs and the tax penalty and interest, and then if there weren't any judgements or deeds of trust, the access to the former owners.

AUCTIONEER: It's your way. $66,000, thank you, sir. High bidder.

ANDREW NEVILLE: And then the new owner of the property would hopefully do some good with the property, whether it needs mowed or whether they build a structure on it, but any good that they do with the property is a benefit to the community.

JOHN BROWN JR. (AUCTION BIDDER): We're thinking of starting a family estate. So, where else would you like to start a family estate than where the family started?

JOHN BROWN SR. (AUCTION BIDDER): The intentions of buying a house? Buying property? We came down to look at it and our mind was changed a little bit. The importance of coming and look at it, the picture shows perfect property. When you come, you look at it. Then you see the real thing.

JOHN BROWN JR.: If you’re not from the area, you may not realize these are the Blue Ridge Mountains. These are mountains, they can get steep.

We live in New Jersey now, we moved away, but this is still home for him, so this is history for us. So, it's not just we're just coming to invest in the land, we're from here, this is home, so it's just a trip to come buy back home.

CAMERON McKAY (WILLIAMSBURG RESIDENT): This house has been the closest I have to a family home. You know, my grandparents bought it new, and my mom lived here when she was in college, and they brought me here when I was a baby from the hospital. And when my grandparents became elderly and needed full-time help in the home, I moved here to help take care of them.

So, this is my grandparents, Larry and Barbara.

My wife and I are both disabled. She's retired. So, it's not like our income goes up commensurate with the cost of everything. I mean, I knew we had some of the tax problems, but I didn't actually know that they were auctioning the house until a concerned neighbor called us yesterday and said, "Hey, are things okay? You know, they're auctioning your house." And it was kind of like, 'What?'

MICHELLE McKAY (WILLIAMSBURG RESIDENT): I know the judge when I went to court that time told me that if you missed payments, they could automatically start proceedings. But I was under the impression it was okay. You know, I called them up and I explained what the situation was. I got cancer in my kidneys, and I asked them if I could pause the payments and take care of what I had to take care of. And she told me she'd pass it on, but she said, "Everything sounds good, and we'll get back to you." They didn't call me back, and I just didn't pay 'cause I figured everything was okay. And I didn't hear anything from them.

ANDREW NEVILLE: What gives me peace if you will, is knowing all of the requirements of the code that have to be met in order for this process to work. And there are notice requirements ahead of filing suit both through the mail and in the newspaper. But in all of these cases, these aren't the first notices that have been mailed out. In a situation where someone comes to the auction, what we will do is we will talk to that individual ahead of the sale. We will look through all of the circumstances leading up to the sale.

CAMERON McKAY: I had hoped that the man I spoke with from TACS knew that we were working to pay this, and if I had more than 24 hours, that I might be able to pay this. I just took everything that I had of value that I knew I could sell and raised $8,700 to try to see if they would take that for the tax money and not auction the house, but they wouldn't entertain.

I'm the homeowner. I didn't learn about this until yesterday. My spouse is a service-connected disabled submarine veteran, and that's who you're fixing to make homeless.

AUCTIONEER: 290, got to go 25, looking at 290, 25.

ANDREW NEVILLE: Any of these judicial sales still have to be confirmed by a judge. So, in those circumstances, we would suggest they go to court, or if they feel the need to hire an attorney, to go to court and explain to the judge why the judge should not confirm the sale of the property.

AUCTIONEER: Our last call, 292, 295. It's in house, you're away, sir.

CAMERON McKAY: This house is... it’s a lot for me. I mean, I’m probably going to have to sell it regardless because we can’t necessarily afford to live here. But I'm emotional about it. You know, it’s a family home. It’s where we had all our Christmases, all our birthdays and most of my family is gone. At this point. It’s mostly just me and Michelle.

LINDA QUARLES ARENCIBIA (LOUISA RESIDENT): Here we've got a deed where Ann Smith buys my three-time great-grandfather, Spencer. I have deep roots in Louisa, and my folk were not just sucking up Louisa air, they were enslaved here, but they became entrepreneurs, businessmen, and landowners.

Buy this parcel of land from Thomas Shepherd, who may have been the previous Josephs enslaver.

Well over 100 acres total. I don't know that exact amount, because I still am wading through names and aliases and discovering land that I didn't know about. Some years ago, my sons and I came by here, and there was still a structure and a closet, and now this, it looks to me like it's been demolished. I did not know, one, that some of this land existed, two, that it was in jeopardy of being lost, until I found out from my niece, who's in Oregon. I've lived in the state of Virginia for a while now, since at least 1990, and when I called the taxing authority and said, 'Why haven't I been notified,' "Well, we couldn't find you." They found my niece, but they couldn't find me. And then during a court hearing, we were told that one of the people that had been contacted was my Aunt Louise. Aunt Louise died as a child, a 7-year-old, around 1930, and yet she was listed as one of several people that this authority had contacted.

Now I'm trying to go through the process of doing all of these things that I don't know about, like becoming executor. A lot of the property, most of it was left in the estate or with wills that were drafted or never executed. So, I'm going through that process. What I would like to see in place is systems that help people who are potential heirs, or who discover they are heirs, to know how to navigate in a way that they don't lose.

ANGIE MILES: Several people told us that getting proper notice was a common problem. By law, the collections attorneys must post notices in local newspapers and send letters by regular mail. Another hurdle is embarrassment, as people in tax trouble may not want to admit it. In an online investment forum, a man claimed that a Virginia locality never notified him before selling his property for one-third of its value. Several participants simply scolded him for falling behind in the first place. Of the property heirs in our story, Cameron McKay's house sold for 125 thousand dollars less than a popular real estate site estimates it’s worth. And of the 100 plus acres owned by Linda Arencibia's family, only one parcel was auctioned. She says she has no idea who paid the taxes to save all the rest.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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