A woman bid $6,000 at Luzerne County’s free-and-clear tax auction last week, thinking she had landed a Wilkes-Barre residential structure at a bargain price.
Instead, she left the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre without paying because her post-auction visit to the county mapping office revealed she actually bid on a 2,000-square-foot lot on Puritan Lane with no house.
This desertion by bidders is a growing concern, said Sean Shamany, of county tax-claim operator Northeast Revenue Service LLC.
A dozen winning bidders failed to follow through and pay on 19 properties after Wednesday’s sale, compared to the usual less than five, the company said.
“We continue to have a problem with bidders who are lackadaisical in doing research, even though we keep beating the drum informing them,” Shamany said.
Figuring out what’s up for auction requires digging because real estate is carved into 167,282 parcels in Luzerne County, each containing a unique identification number.
Lots containing yards, garages, driveways or other parking areas often are on separate parcels, even though they may only have value to an adjacent structure. Many are slivers too small for new structures under current zoning requirements. Property owners have no requirement to consolidate all their adjoining parcels into a single one through a reverse subdivision.
Each parcel is taxed — and thus, auctioned — individually.
In the case of the Puritan Lane property, another bidder acquired a parcel containing a house that is near the lot for $7,500.
Visits to the county deed, mapping and assessment offices are advised to identify what’s included in a parcel before someone bids, county officials say.
The property locations in assessment records — known as “situs addresses” — also are creating confusion.
These addresses are intended as a reference point to find the general location of a property and may no longer correlate to a structure, said county Assessment Director Anthony Alu.
Many situs addresses date back decades, and several contiguous but separate parcels may be lumped under the same situs address.
The county continues to provide the situs addresses as a reference point but doesn’t have the resources to review and revise each one to ensure only those with structures currently using those addresses remain, Alu said.
Shamany said some bidders are solely basing their purchases on GPS or online searches of what’s located at the situs addresses. Even if the situs addresses are technically accurate, the online maps and GPS addresses may be incorrect, he said.
“Research must be done based on the parcel identification number. That’s the gold,” Shamany said. “People have to focus on the parcel number and do their due diligence.”
Winning bidders who refuse to pay are banned from participating in future sales.
The blacklisting is warranted because those who renege delay attempts by taxing bodies to recoup at least some of the unpaid taxes and place delinquent property into new hands, Shamany said. Others who were outbid on the 19 properties also may not show up or be interested when they are auctioned again.
The 19 properties will be relisted at a special free-and-clear auction on Oct. 27. Liens and other back taxes are forgiven at these final-stage sales.
A packed crowd of dozens of bidders generated competition for most properties listed in last week’s sale.
As part of the county council’s push for increased marketing of tax sales, Northeast Revenue brought in a professional auctioneer from J&J Action Service in Sheppton near Hazleton to handle the bidding. The company promoted the tax sale on its website, resulting in more than 5,000 views, Shamany said.
Competitive bidding benefits taxing bodies because they receive a share when buyers pay more than the starting bid, which was typically under $2,000 to cover auction processing and realty transfer tax.
In total, 76 properties sold for a combined $560,857, including the transfer tax, Shamany said.
The bidding went so high on some properties, all delinquent taxes were paid with money left over that will be turned over to the people who lost their properties.
For example, Hazleton resident Jose Colon submitted the highest bid in the auction — $52,000 for the Kosciusko Polish American Citizens’ Club on Winters Avenue in West Hazleton. Around $15,700 in taxes were owed on the property, which includes apartments, from 2013 through 2016, county records show.
Businessman Charles Adonizio III paid a combined $28,500 to purchase four parcels of vacant land, much of it mine-scarred, totaling 150 acres.
Adonizio said he owns an adjacent 25-acre property and wants to expand his holdings. He plans to clean up the site and isn’t sure if he will develop it.
Benton resident Lee Arthur Hess purchased the Sweet Valley Landscaping property on Liberty Street in Hanover Township for $32,000, records show. The property, which had been owned by SVL Realty LLC, is assessed at $206,400.
Christopher Puma, of Ashley, paid $40,000 for a residential structure on Lower Demunds Road in Dallas Township that is assessed at $219,800, records show.
Zoran Zovka, of Fords, New Jersey, bought a former personal care home on West Church Street in Nanticoke for $23,000, according to Northeast Revenue. It is assessed at $211,600.
Hazleton resident Edison Ferreira paid $28,000 for a house on East Birch Street in the city that is assessed at $75,400.
Ferreira said he plans to replace the roof and complete other repairs before renting the property. He is renting out another property he purchased at a prior county tax auction.
“I’m happy with the price. My goal is to keep buying more properties,” Ferreira said.