You can check for liens on a property by reviewing public records yourself, using online tools, or working with title agents. A property with a lien can be a red flag because it can cause problems for the new owner, which includes preventing you from receiving a mortgage.
Fortunately, learning how to check for liens on a property is relatively straightforward. Let’s explore the different methods of checking for liens on properties and the types of liens you may run into.
How to check for liens on property
One of the steps you need while learning how to invest in real estate is knowing how to check for liens. This knowledge can help you avoid wasting time and money on properties that may not be worth it.
You can check for liens by contacting the local county, using an online lien search tool, or getting help from a title company.
1. Contact the local county
Liens are usually a part of the public records after they get filed. Public records are available for anyone to see.
Accessing these records varies by state, but one of the most common methods to access lien information is by contacting the county where the property is located. This can be done in person, over the phone, or online.
- Visit or call the county clerk or recorder’s office to inquire about specific properties.
- Access property liens online, a service available in some counties that can save you the time needed to visit a county clerk’s office or make a phone call.
Keep in mind that public lien records may be difficult to read or understand. Some counties may list information in a format that needs a set of experienced eyes to understand its content.
2. Use an online property lien search tool
You can use an online search tool to avoid sifting through public records on your own. Various easy-to-use options are available and can simplify your search.
For example, it’s free to create an account on PropertyShark.com, and you get one free property report that shows a wealth of information for any valid address, including any liens on the property.
You have to subscribe to get more than one report. Pricing varies by region but typically starts around $50 to $60 per month.
You can also request detailed reports from USTitleRecords.com. You don’t need to create an account or subscribe to anything with this service. Simply choose a report, enter an address, and pay a flat fee for your report. It costs $95 per property lien report.
3. Get help from a title company
Title companies are third parties that can help lenders and buyers navigate important parts of the homebuying process. This includes:
- Researching the history of property owners
- Performing a title search
- Ensuring the property title is clean of any liens
You may hire a title company or agent to help when you don’t have the expertise or time to do the necessary research yourself. Hiring a title company is typically not a legal requirement, but many buyers do it because title agents can help ensure everything is smooth while buying a home.
What to do if you find a property lien
Finding a property lien isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but there are a few things to be aware of, depending on if you find a lien on your own home or a house you want to buy.
Finding a lien on your own property
Finding a lien on your own property is cause for some concern, but it may not end up being a big deal.
- A paid-off lien: Simply contact the party responsible for the lien — the lienholder — to have it released. This may involve using a lien release form.
- A lien that hasn’t been paid off: You may be protected with title insurance if something was missed during the due diligence process concerning a lien. This is uncommon, especially if you used a real estate agent, realtor, or title company to help during the homebuying process.
The downside is that you likely can't refinance or proceed with a home sale until you figure out the reason behind this lien and have it removed.
Finding a lien on a property you want to buy
You may decide to look for a different property after finding a lien on the property you were considering. However, you have a few more options:
- Clear the lien. The most straightforward option is to get the lien paid off. Typically, this is the seller’s responsibility.
- Negotiate a deal. You can also negotiate with the seller if they don’t want to pay off the lien. This can include a reduction in the sale price from the seller in exchange for a lien payment from you.
Having the seller pay off the lien is likely the easier and better option. You don’t necessarily want to take on any debt yourself, even if it seems as though everything is going to work out.
Keep in mind: Mortgage lenders won’t typically approve a mortgage if a property has a lien on it.
What is a property lien?
A property lien is basically a legal claim against your property against a debt you owe. If you don’t pay off your debt, your house can be used as collateral. Common types of property liens include mortgages, tax liens, mechanic’s liens, and judgment liens.
What types of liens are there?
Liens often come in three categories:
1. Voluntary liens
Voluntary liens are agreements between two parties, which is why they’re sometimes called consensual liens. Common types of voluntary liens include home mortgages and car loans.
For a mortgage lien, a lender agrees to give you money to buy a home, and you agree to pay the lender back according to the terms of the agreement. Lenders can take the property in the agreement as collateral if you don’t make payments.
2. Statutory liens
Statutory liens result from state or federal law breaches. For example, you can have a tax lien placed on your property when you don’t make federal tax payments to the IRS.
Statutory liens are generally considered superior to other types of liens, such as voluntary liens or judgment liens, because they are created by statute, which means they have priority over other claims to the property. This means that if a property is sold or foreclosed on, statutory liens must be paid off before any other liens on the property.
Some real estate investors place their money in statutory liens, such as tax liens, by purchasing tax lien certificates that local governments sell. This effectively transfers ownership of a lien from the original creditor to the investor. This form of investment may be profitable when a homeowner pays off what they owe or when the real property is foreclosed.
Learn more about how to invest in tax liens.
3. Judgment liens
A judgment lien is a type of legal claim against a property that is granted by a court to a creditor as a way to collect a debt that is owed. It can be placed on your property if someone wins a lawsuit against you because you owe them money.
Judgment liens are often called involuntary liens because they aren’t something both parties agree to. You’re unlikely to be able to sell or mortgage a property until the judgment lien is paid off or expired. Depending on state law, Judgment liens typically last for a certain period, usually between five and 20 years, and can be renewed in some states.
Property liens FAQs
Can someone put a lien on my house without me knowing?
Yes, someone can put a lien on your house without your knowledge, though it’s not common. Liens are typically placed on a property after a legal process, such as a lawsuit or a judgment, has been completed.
You may not know if a lien is placed on your house based on how notifications are provided. However, liens involve unpaid debt, which typically means debt notices are sent out before placing a lien.
How do I get rid of a lien on my property?
There are five common ways to get rid of a lien on your property:
- Pay it off. Pay the debt in full to get a lien release.
- Negotiate a release. Negotiate a lower payment for a lien release.
- Dispute it. Get a wrongful lien removed in court.
- Bond it off. Post a bond to secure the lien, which is allowed in some states.
- Wait for it to expire. Wait for liens, such as judgment liens, to become invalid after their expiry date.
How do you put a lien on a property?
The requirements to put a lien on a property vary by state but may involve the following steps:
- Exhaust all possible solutions to get the money you’re owed paid to you.
- Notify the debtor that you’ll file a lien if the debt isn’t paid.
- Check lien filing deadlines in your state.
- File a lien through the proper channels in your state, which may be through your local county or court.
Knowing how to check for liens on a property is important if you are looking to buy a home. You should also check for liens on your own home every once in a while to ensure you don’t have any outstanding obligations.
Checking for liens is also essential for real estate investors as they learn how to invest money because it can help them decide whether it’s worth investing in a property.
You can typically check for liens by exploring public county records, using an online property lien search tool, or enlisting a title company's aid.
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