Tax deed sales rising in area

Thousands of Tampa Bay area residents have lost property after falling behind on their mortgages and even homeowners association dues.

But there’s a third way people are losing homes and land: delinquent property taxes.

In the first nine months of this year, the owners of more than 200 properties in Hillsborough County have lost them in “tax deed sales,” where the county clerk’s office sells off properties that are at least two years behind on their tax bills.

That number has nearly doubled in the past three years.

Who’s buying them?

Often, it’s financial heavy hitters such as a JPMorgan Chase subsidiary and a former Massachusetts hedge-fund manager.

Many of the properties are dilapidated homes or vacant land in blighted areas.

Some are more valuable.

In June, the Hillsborough County clerk’s office sold 1.8 acres of industrial land in Ruskin containing five warehouses and mobile homes for just $40,000.

Although it is not a high-end property, the county property appraiser still valued it at $230,000.

Ken Knox, who runs a Ruskin aluminum business, had wanted to buy the property for 15 years but couldn’t make a deal. He marveled at the price an investor group paid for it at the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

“I offered (the owners) a quarter-million dollars just before it went to tax sale,” Knox said.

Investors for years have paid the back taxes for delinquent property owners. In return, investors receive a “tax certificate,” and the property owners must pay back the investor with interest of up to 18 percent if they want to keep their home.

What’s new is the number of property owners losing their homes and land.

An investor essentially can foreclose on the property if the delinquent taxpayer hasn’t paid him back within 22 months.

Already this year, the owners of 233 properties have lost them in tax deed sales at the county courthouse.

That’s up from the 170 properties during all of last year and 110 properties in all of 2009, data from the Clerk of the Circuit Court show.

Court Clerk Pat Frank said she foresaw the trend a few years ago.

Property taxes have stayed fairly high, although so many properties have sunk in value.

Some property owners now seem willing to let their homes and land go for the amount of back taxes, Frank said.

“It’s one indication of the real estate market,” Frank said.

Last week, about 40 investors gathered on the second floor of the county courthouse to scour the list of 17 properties that were to be auctioned at discount rates.

Young men in shorts and jeans scrolled through their PDAs or pulled up pictures of the properties on their tablet computers.

A few bidders at the auction sent text messages to the investors who were bankrolling them, but they wouldn’t reveal any names when approached by a reporter.

Only a few of the 17 properties on sale that day held any interest for bidders.

Many were vacant land or older houses in modest neighborhoods, but every now and then, a property would catch fire with bidders.

One parcel in Odessa opened at just over $30,000, but shot up to $50,030 as bidders stared one another down over several minutes.

That winning bid would seem to be a huge bargain, given that the county Property Appraiser’s Office valued the parcel at $175,000.

However, two bidders insisted to a reporter that it wasn’t worth anywhere near that appraisal. They also warned that many of the properties that go to tax deed sales carry liens and have other problems that can make them more hassle than they’re worth.

The bidder who paid the $50,030 told a reporter he had been hired by someone else to buy the properties, but he declined to reveal his backer.

Big institutional buyers such as banks and hedge funds appear to be the biggest local acquirers of such property.

What’s not clear is whether the big institutions wanted to take title to the properties, or whether they paid the delinquent taxes as an investment and simply got stuck with the properties when the owner didn’t repay them.

One firm, Plymouth Park Tax Services, has taken title to 14 such properties since Jan. 1, county records show.

Plymouth Park is a subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase.

A JPMorgan Chase spokeswoman said Tuesday that Plymouth Park plans to stop investing in new tax certificates.

Another group called Alumni Partners II also has taken title to 14 tax-delinquent properties this year. County records identify its leader as Eric Kobren of Longboat Key.

The Tribune was unable to reach Kobren, but a biography of him on the website of his former company, Kobren Insight Management, says he runs a hedge fund called Alumni Partners.

Also, news articles about tax certificates from other news sources say Kobren is a big player in the market nationwide.

In Ruskin, some businessmen with ties to the industrial land auctioned off in June can’t understand why it went for only $40,000.

Bill Hoffman has leased property there for a car repair shop for 30 years and was in limbo as the family that owned it went delinquent on its taxes.

He said the original property owners died and their children began fighting over the property. The Tribune was unable to reach the family this week.

Knox, the aluminum business owner, also leased space there until recently. He tried to buy the property for about $250,000, but its owners wouldn’t sell.

“The family just could not come together on the sale,” Knox said.