Tax Lien Investing: Investing in Tax Lien Certificates

Published on October 30, 2023
Tax Lien Investing: Investing in Tax Lien Certificates

Tax Lien Investing: Investing in Tax Lien Certificates

Tax lien certificates are primarily made to assist municipalities in collecting unpaid property taxes but they also provide individual investors with a chance to earn potentially high returns. As such, they balance public need and private opportunity, allowing investors to acquire liens on properties with delinquent taxes. 

While the benefits of tax lien investing can be considerable, from high rates of return to even the potential acquisition of property below market value, this investing strategy can also be complex and challenging.

In this blog, we’ll discuss all the pros and cons of tax lien investing, how it differs from tax deed sales, its tax implications, and more!

What is a Tax Lien?

What is a Tax Lien?

According to the National Tax Lien Association, a tax lien is a legal claim imposed by a government agency on a property when the property owner fails to pay their tax bill on that property. Taxes can be owed to federal, state, or local tax authorities, encompassing anything from income taxes to property taxes. 

The primary purpose of a tax lien is to secure the government's interest and ensure that the owed taxes are paid.

When a property owner doesn't pay the tax obligations by the legal deadline or expiration date, the taxing authority has the right to place a lien on the property. This means that the property effectively becomes collateral for the unpaid taxes. 

The presence of a tax lien can significantly impact a property owner's ability to sell or refinance their property. Any transaction involving the property will generally need the lien to be satisfied or cleared, meaning the owed taxes must be paid off before the transaction can be completed.

The tax lien comes first over most other claims or liens on a property, making it a powerful tool for tax collection agencies. It ensures that the tax debt is given priority and is paid before other creditors can stake a claim on the property's value.

What is a Tax Lien Certificate?

A tax lien certificate is a legal document that signifies an investment in the unpaid tax debt of a property owner. 

As mentioned, when property owners fail to pay their owed property taxes, the local government seeks to recover this lost revenue. One of the methods they employ is the selling of tax lien certificates to investors at an auction.

The government sells tax lien certificates to generate immediate revenue. The certificate represents the owed tax amount, any penalties, and interest accrued.

When an investor purchases a tax lien certificate, they effectively pay the owed taxes on behalf of the delinquent property owner. 

In return, the investor receives the right to collect this debt, which includes the original amount plus interest and penalties. The interest rate can be set by the certificate or bid down at the auction, depending on the city or state.

The property owner is then obligated to repay the investor, not the government, to remove the lien from their property. 

If the property owner decides to settle the debt, they would have to pay the total amount of the unpaid taxes plus the interest rate determined at the auction.

Tax Lien vs. Tax Deed Investing?

Tax Lien vs. Tax Deed Investing?

As detailed above, tax lien investing is a type of investing where individuals can purchase property tax liens. When a property owner fails to pay their property tax bill, the local government issues a tax lien on that property. 

This action creates a tax lien certificate. The certificates are then auctioned off, allowing investors to bid on tax lien certificates.

In this case, the certificate holder is the one who is owed money, not the government. The interest rate decided upon during the auction or set by the governing body determines the investor's return. 

With tax liens, the investor does not instantly become the owner of the property. Nothing more than a monetary claim exists against it.

When taxes aren't paid, however, tax deed investment entails buying the property directly. 

The local government will put up for sale the deed to the property in states where tax deeds are used. After then, the property is transferred to the winning bidder. Buying real estate at a small fraction of market value is the main draw of tax deed investment.

Essentially, tax deed investing concentrates on buying properties outright at lower prices, whereas tax lien investing is concentrated on generating interest from unpaid taxes. 

What is Tax Lien Investing?

Tax lien investing is a form of real estate investment centered on capitalizing on property owners' unpaid taxes. 

Instead of directly pursuing the property owner, many local governments offer investors an opportunity to step in. By buying tax lien certificates or investing in real estate liens, an investor essentially covers the unpaid tax amount for the property owner. 

In return for this, the investor receives the right to collect this debt with an added interest, providing a potential avenue for profit.

The essence of tax lien investing is not necessarily in property acquisition but rather in the interest generated from the unpaid tax debt. The process allows governments to recover necessary funds promptly, gives property owners a grace period to settle their debts, and offers investors a chance at a secured, interest-based return. 

Tax Lien Investing Example

Let’s say Sophia came across a property in Tampa, Florida. The homeowner had an outstanding property tax debt of $4,000 on a residence appraised at $250,000. Sensing an opportunity, Sophia decided to participate in the auction.

At the auction, instead of the price of the tax lien certificate, the bidding focused on the interest rate. Florida starts its tax lien auctions at a maximum interest rate of 18%. 

As participants began placing their bids, the interest rate gradually dropped, reflecting the competitive nature of the auction. Eventually, Sophia won the bid at an interest rate of 12%.

Upon winning, Sophia paid the county the outstanding tax amount of $4,000. In return, she was granted a tax lien certificate, securing her investment against the property. This certificate entitled her to the repayment of the original amount plus the 12% annual interest she had bid.

Over the next year, the homeowner struggled with his finances. Sophia, understanding the process, patiently waited. As the redemption period neared its end, the homeowner managed to secure the funds needed to clear his tax debt. 

He repaid Sophia the $4,000 principal and an additional $480 in interest, which was her 12% return for the year-long period.

For Sophia, the tax lien investment proved to be both profitable and straightforward. She earned a higher interest rate than many traditional investments might offer, all secured by the tangible value of a property. 

As can be deducted from the example, investing in a tax lien means that the investor is essentially paying off the tax lien for the property owner. In return, the property owner owes the investor the amount paid, plus an interest rate on the lien. This rate is typically set based on the tax owed, and it's a primary reason why some find this investment appealing.

If the property owner manages to pay off the tax lien, the investor receives their initial investment back, along with the interest. However, if the owner fails to pay within a specified period, the investor may have the right to foreclose on the property.

What Rates of Return Can You Expect From Tax Certificates?

What Rates of Return Can You Expect From Tax Certificates?

Investing in tax lien certificates can really help you generate income. But what kind of returns can you anticipate? The answer largely depends on the specific state offering the tax certificate, as well as various other factors.

To illustrate, let's consider a few state-specific examples. Florida offers a compelling maximum interest rate of 18%. In contrast, Alabama has opted for a steady, fixed rate of 12%. Heading west, Arizona sets its interest ceiling at a notable 16%. Meanwhile, Iowa stands out with its unique offer of 2% per month on the unpaid balance.

An essential clarification to bear in mind is that the interest applied to tax certificates is calculated using simple interest. But before you get excited by those high interest rates, it's crucial to acknowledge the competitive industry of tax lien auctions. 

In states where the "bid down" system is common, capturing tax liens at the maximum is uncommon. Why? Simply put, the tax sale process is brimming with competition, often driving the interest rates downward as investors compete for the same liens.

The actual interest an investor gains is shaped by a lot of factors. The geographical location of the property, its inherent value, the amount of the tax debt, and the investor's bid at auction all play significant roles. 

Generally, the observed rate of return on tax lien certificates is between 8% and 30%.

Pros and Cons of Tax Lien Investing

Like any idea in the investment world, tax lien investing works with its own set of challenges and risks involved. Understanding the advantages and potential pitfalls of this investment strategy is essential before you consider this avenue. 


  • High Rate of Return: When compared to traditional investments, tax liens often offer a much more attractive yield. This is largely attributed to the statutory interest rates set by the state, which can range from moderate to very high percentages. For instance, some states offer rates as high as 16% to 18%, while others, like Iowa, can provide 2% per month on the unpaid balance. These returns are particularly alluring for those who have an appetite for potentially higher rewards, even if they come with certain risks.
  • Lump Sum Payment: The structure of tax lien investing often results in a lump sum payment when the property owner redeems the lien. This means that the investor receives the initial amount they paid for the tax lien certificate, plus the accrued interest, all at once. For investors, this kind of payout can be advantageous as it provides a significant, one-time influx of funds. Such tax payments can be further invested, saved, or utilized as deemed fit.
  • Low Initial Capital Required: Unlike some other real estate investments that might demand hefty sums upfront, tax liens can often be acquired for the mere amount of unpaid property taxes, which can be minimal in certain instances. This allows individuals with more modest financial means to purchase tax lien properties, diversify their portfolios, and potentially reap meaningful returns. Furthermore, the potential to obtain a property in the event of non-redemption for just the owed taxes represents an incredible opportunity for the astute investor.
  • Diversifies Portfolio: What you need to know about tax liens is that these investments can be a good way to diversify one's portfolio. Whether one opts for a direct approach or would rather consider investing passively, tax lien investing offers avenues for both.


  • Requires Thorough Research: One cannot simply dive into tax lien investing without adequate groundwork. It requires meticulous research to identify viable opportunities and mitigate risks. Investors must be aware of the property's condition, its market value, the state's rules regarding tax liens, how these states foreclose on the property, and the redemption period. Neglecting this research when you consider investing in tax liens could result in unforeseen complications or losses. Remember that a property with a lien cannot be sold or refinanced until the taxes are paid and the lien is removed
  • Fixed Payment: Unlike some investments where the potential for profit might scale with the asset's appreciation, tax lien investing generally offers a fixed return. This means that even if the property's value surges considerably, the investor is limited to the agreed-upon interest rate on the certificate.
  • Can Be Time-Consuming: The tax lien process isn't always swift. From attending auctions to waiting out the redemption period, and potentially navigating the foreclosure process if a lien isn't redeemed, it can be a long journey. This demands patience and the understanding that your capital might be tied up for an extended period. If you want, you may try investing passively through an institutional investor.
  • Properties May Be Neglected: There's a reason property taxes each year haven't been paid by the owner, and often it's indicative of financial distress whatever the type of property is. Such properties might be neglected or in disrepair. Some properties with environmental damage may not even be as valuable as they appear. If the lien isn't redeemed and the investor takes possession, they might inherit a property that requires significant investment to renovate or make habitable. Thus, those interested in investing should always do their due diligence.
  • High Competition: The allure of potentially high returns in tax lien investing has attracted many investors, leading to fierce competition, especially in lucrative markets. This competition can drive down potential interest rates in "bid down" auctions, and in some cases, make it challenging to secure liens at all. 
  • Tax Lien Expires: Tax liens don't last indefinitely. If the homeowner doesn't redeem the lien within the stipulated period and the investor doesn't initiate foreclosure proceedings in time, the lien could expire, leading to potential losses.
  • More Potential Liens: Tax lien investing requires a lot of patience. Securing a tax lien certificate on a property doesn't protect it from future liens. If subsequent property taxes aren't paid during the redemption period, new liens can be placed, complicating the investment. Moreover, other forms of liens, like mortgage or mechanic's liens, could supersede the tax lien, introducing further challenges on your ownership of the property.

Steps of Tax Lien Investing

Steps of Tax Lien Investing

For those new to this investment strategy or even seasoned investors looking for a refresher, here are the fundamental steps involved when investing in tax liens.

Step 1. Research State Laws

Tax lien laws and regulations vary significantly across states, city, or county. Familiarize yourself with the specific rules, interest rates, and redemption periods of the states you're interested in. Also, learn about the process of how tax lien certificated is created or how tax lien is placed in specific states.

Step 2. Budgeting

Determine your budget for investing in tax liens. It's important to account not only for the cost of the liens but also for potential additional expenses such as legal fees, research costs, and potential property upkeep you are willing to accept.

Step 3. Property Assessment

Before bidding on a tax lien, research the properties. Look at its value, location, condition, and any other liens or encumbrances that might affect its worth or cause potential risks. Moeover, to get a list of available liens, one would typically approach the local tax revenue office.

Step 4. Identify Upcoming Sales

Most counties or municipalities conduct regular tax lien sales, either in person or online. These can be identified through local government websites, newspapers, or direct contacts with the local tax collector's office.

Step 5. Register for the Auction

Prior to participating in an auction, you typically need to register, which may involve providing personal identification, a deposit, or even proof of funds.

Step 6. Participate and Bid

Attend the auction and place your bids on tax liens that align with your research and investment criteria. Bidding can be competitive, so it's essential to set limits for yourself to avoid overbidding.

Step 7. Acquire the Tax Lien Certificate

If you win a bid, you'll need to pay for the tax lien certificate, which then provides you with the right to the owed tax amount plus the interest rate determined at the auction.

Step 8. Monitor Your Investment

After acquiring a tax lien certificate, track the redemption period. If the property owner pays back their owed taxes within this period, you receive your invested amount plus interest. If they don't, you might have the right to initiate foreclosure proceedings to claim the property.

Step 9. Collection or Foreclosure

Either the property owner redeems the lien, in which case you collect your investment plus interest, or the redemption period expires, allowing you to potentially take further action to acquire the property.

Step 10. Stay Updated on Tax Obligations

Remember that while you hold a tax lien certificate, subsequent property taxes might still be due. It's essential to be aware of these, especially if you eventually acquire the property.

Step 11. Exit Strategy

Whether you're repaid with interest or end up acquiring the property, have a plan in place for your next steps. This could involve selling the property, renting it out, or even just selling the tax lien certificate to another investor.

How to Find Tax Lien Investing Opportunities

How to Find Tax Lien Investing Opportunities

Discovering tax lien investing opportunities is important for any investor wishing to enter this industry. Here's a handy guide to help you in finding and evaluating tax lien investing opportunities:

County and Municipal Websites

Begin with the source. Most counties or municipalities will have dedicated sections on their websites detailing upcoming tax sales, lists of delinquent properties, and pertinent information about the auction process. These platforms will typically provide dates, procedures, and other essential details for prospective bidders.

Tax Lien Auctions

Many states conduct public auctions – either in-person or online – where tax lien certificates are sold. Attending these auctions can offer a firsthand glimpse into the properties available and the competitive landscape. 

If the auction is online, it's advisable to familiarize yourself with the platform in advance.

Local Newspapers 

By law, many counties are required to publish notices about upcoming tax sales in local newspapers. 

These notices, often found in the legal or public announcement sections, provide a list of properties that are delinquent and set to be auctioned. Regularly perusing these newspapers can keep you informed about imminent opportunities.

Tax Lien Lists 

Some companies and platforms specialize in curating and providing lists of tax liens available across different states. 

These lists can be purchased or accessed through subscriptions. While they can simplify the search process, it's crucial to ensure the source's credibility and the data's accuracy.

Real Estate Agents and Brokers

Experienced local real estate professionals can be valuable allies. They often have insights into properties in financial distress, upcoming tax sales, or owners who might be amenable to selling before a property goes to auction. Networking with these professionals can open up a slew of opportunities.


Joining local real estate or investment groups can be beneficial. Such groups often organize workshops, seminars, or meetings discussing various investment strategies, including tax lien investing. 

Engaging with like-minded investors can offer tips, lead to partnerships, or introduce you to new opportunities.

Tax Implications of Tax Lien Investing

Tax lien investing, like all investment avenues, comes with its set of tax implications. Below is an overview of the tax considerations associated with tax lien investing to keep you guided.

Interest Income 

The interest earned from a redeemed tax lien certificate is considered taxable income. This means that when a homeowner pays off their tax debt, any interest you, as the investor, earn on top of your initial investment is subject to tax. 

Depending on your individual tax situation and the state, this income could be taxed at ordinary income rates.

Capital Gains

If you acquire a property through a tax lien (in cases where the homeowner defaults and does not redeem the lien) and later sell that property for a profit, you may be subject to capital gains tax

The rate at which you're taxed depends on how long you held the property. If held for less than a year, it's considered a short-term capital gain, which is usually taxed at ordinary income rates. If held for more than a year, it might qualify for the generally lower long-term capital gains rates.

Implications of Property Acquisition

On the off chance that you end up acquiring a property due to an unredeemed tax lien, you might encounter property-related tax obligations. 

This could include ongoing property taxes, assessments, and any other local liens. It's essential to be aware of these to avoid falling into delinquency yourself.

The costs associated with acquiring and maintaining a tax lien certificate, such as auction fees or legal costs, might be deductible. It's crucial to keep detailed records of these expenses, as they can offset the taxable income derived from your investment.

Potential Losses

If a tax lien becomes worthless (for instance, if you cannot collect on the lien and also can't acquire or sell the underlying property), you might be able to claim a capital loss. This loss can offset other capital gains or, to a limited extent, ordinary income.

State-specific Implications

Tax rules can vary significantly from one state to another. For instance, some states might offer tax incentives or breaks for investments in certain areas, while others could have specific rules about how tax lien profits are recognized and taxed.

Key Takeaways: Investing in Tax Lien Certificates

Tax lien investing can be a good opportunity for those looking to diversify their portfolio, but it's essential to know about tax liens, how a tax lien works, and the risks involved.

Before diving in, make sure you've gathered everything you need to know and understand both the rewards and potential pitfalls of this type of investing.

Alternatively, if you want to try other investing opportunities, check us out at Property Leads. We offer highly motivated seller leads perfect for your next deal!

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