Oklahoma counties' delinquent property sales draw questions
ANADARKO — For years, Robert Nurnberg coveted the oak-shaded lots just across the road from his cabin at Fort Cobb Lake. The owner had disappeared, leaving behind a house, storage buildings and a three-car garage.
Even abandoned and overgrown, the value was evident.
“It was the nicest property on the whole street and it still is,” he said.
That's why Nurnberg was angry to learn he'd missed out when the land sold last month at an auction that Oklahoma counties hold annually to dispose of tax-delinquent properties.
“We've watched it for three years waiting for something to happen — a real estate sign, a for-sale-by-owner, a notice from the county that it was going up for a tax sale,” said Nurnberg, a roofing company owner from Corn. “Then something happened and I had no way of knowing. I can spit nails thinking about it.”
Caddo County Treasurer Stan Jennings said he conducted the tax sale by the book. He sent the proper legal notices to the property owner, published the legal description of the land in the Anadarko newspaper and supervised a public sale in which anyone could have bid.
He can't help that the half-acre property the county values at more than $53,000 ended up in the hands of an abstract company owner who does business with his office, he said. The sale price? Just under $8,000.
Now, some, like Nurnberg and Oklahoma Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones are questioning the way counties sell properties seized for back taxes, including whether some abstractors, people paid to examine property titles, should be allowed to participate. They also say counties may be costing themselves thousands of dollars in lost revenue by not advertising to attract the most bidders possible.
Unlike counties in some other states, Caddo County and others in Oklahoma do not publish a street address of properties for sale. Nor do they post public notices on the property. Instead, they rely on newspaper ads that include only boundary descriptions published in difficult-to-understand legalese.
“How in the world can you attempt to get the best value or price out of the property if people who might be in the market to buy it can't identify it?” Jones asked.
In Wyandotte County, Kan., officials have published street addresses in legal ads as long as John Hooser can remember.
“If we just gave the legal description to the property, they would have no idea where it was located,” said Hooser, an abstractor in the county's delinquent real estate office.
In St. Louis County, Mo., street addresses are published whenever possible. The same is true in Jackson County, Mo., spokesman Dan Ferguson said.
“It can be another tool for prospective buyers to get a look at what they might be buying,” Ferguson said.
Missouri also requires an 8-by-11-inch notice be posted on any delinquent property coming up for sale.
Until a few years ago, Oklahoma required similar notices be posted on owner-occupied homes that faced a delinquent tax sale. But the Legislature rescinded that law.
By not advertising the property in a manner that draws the most bidders, Oklahoma counties may be shorting themselves. Under state law, any money from a sale that exceeds the taxes and penalties owed is returned to the property owner. If the owner can't be located the money goes to the county treasurer.
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