How to own an abandoned house

Visitor Question: If you can't afford an abandoned house and it's an eye sore to the block how can you purchase the house or assume ownership?

Editors' Reply:
Unfortunately there's no shortcut to purchasing an abandoned house. The process would be the same as deciding that you want to buy an occupied million dollar house. First you will have to find the owner and establish communication.

To do this in the U.S., go to the county office that records deeds. Ask that office to help you find the name and address of the property owner, and then write a letter.

You should be prepared to pay the assessed value or appraised value, although certainly you can start with offering a lower price, just as in any real estate transaction. Don't expect the owner to just give you the property. You can learn the assessed value while you are the county office figuring out ownership.

Some jurisdictions will have this information online, by the way. If not, you will have to visit the county office during normal business hours.

Now suppose for a moment that your letter to the property owner of record does not bring a friendly phone call the next day. As we point out on our page about abandoned homes, sometimes the first challenge in dealing with an abandoned house is finding the owner. Even after finding the owner, dealing with that person may be problem-filled, as something negative is happening to them or they wouldn't have left the house untended.

Another fairly common situation is that a group of heirs have inherited the property, and since none of them paid for it and none of them want to live there now, they allow the house to sit vacant. We have written about this on a page on what is called heir property.

There's one option that we should bring out into the open. If your municipal government (your city, town, or village) is willing and able legally to condemn the property, that might be a route to pursue. If you live in an area not part of any city, called an unincorporated area, this would be the responsibility of the county.

To explore this, ask the city (or county) attorney if you have one that attends meetings of the city council or whatever your governing body may be called. If there's no city attorney in evidence, ask the mayor to consider that possibility with an attorney.

Find out which housing codes or existing property codes, if any, your city has adopted. This is a law that is different from a building code pertaining to new construction. Instead this type of law is about maintenance of housing. A number of smaller cities don't take the step of adopting this type of code, but you should check.

The code or law itself will then spell out the steps that must be taken for the property owner to be cited in court, and then escalating steps that might lead to the property being condemned.

If (and it's a big if) the city is willing and able to condemn the property and obtain ownership of it, then you can approach the city reasonably as a person of good will in the neighborhood who would clean up and take good care of the abandoned house.

You should be aware that this condemnation route is pretty much of a long shot, as citizen tolerance for condemning property for any reason is low. Politically the trend is toward more assertion of private property rights, rather than less.

However, if your case is enough of an eyesore, as you state, sometimes popular opinion can be turned in your direction.

If you're in a larger city, they already will have an established procedure and qualifications for how they dispose of private property that they acquire because of non-payment of taxes or other reasons. Often these processes are bureaucratic and require that a substantial payment be made.

Learn about this before you start pressuring your city for condemnation, because if you can't afford what they would charge you if they obtained the property, it's not worth antagonizing them by asking for the condemnation process.

In dealing with an abandoned house, it's helpful for a number of neighbors to join together. You mention your block, but not a wider neighborhood. If you're representing a neighborhood organization, your question doesn't give us that information. However, we suggest that if you have a working community organization in your area, this abandoned house should be discussed with that neighborhood association.

Not only would a neighborhood association give you political support, but also it can be a place where you could raise the additional money necessary for you to be able to afford to purchase the abandoned house.

So in direct answer to your question, in most places, you can't simply go through a couple of quick steps to become the owner of an abandoned house. If you live where there is a real estate property tax and the taxes are not being paid, you might be able to make a successful bid on it at a sheriff's sale. Whether or not there are taxes due is another piece of public information that you can obtain while at the county courthouse or on the county website. If taxes aren't being paid, find out how long it will be before it is scheduled to be "sold on the courthouse steps," as they say. If you can afford mentally to wait that long, that may be your best choice yet.

Lastly, a few places enacted processes to make it easier to deal with abandoned houses after the recent major recession. When investigating property ownership, be sure to ask about this possibility.

Those are the general steps to take about the abandoned house problem. We agree that if the property is an eyesore, you should take action. Unfortunately it's just not a simple process in most places.

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