Liens on a Property

Selling a home can be a simple process, or a tricky minefield. Just when an agent thinks they know everything about the property, the title work comes back with a left hook. One such unpleasant surprise can come in the form of liens on a property.

Imagine you’re the selling agent and you’ve got the deal in the bag. The paperwork begins and a title search is ordered. The search comes back that the seller has judgement liens on the property from an old credit card in the amount of $3,000. The seller, having just used his life’s savings to prep for this big move, does not have $3,000. The deal falls apart, leaving the agent wondering how to avoid this problem.

Property liens can be anything from debt to taxes to child support and more. They can be a massive headache because sometimes the seller isn’t aware they exist, they require a title search to find, they aren’t amended by bankruptcy, and they stick with you through life and afterwards. Here’s what you can do if an unexpected lien shows up on a title commitment.

Verify the Lien and Try to Pay It Off

Here’s what to expect when a closer calls you about a lien. They’ll tell you the amount owed, where the lien comes from, and advise you that the seller must pay it off at closing. Your first step as mouthpiece between the title company and the seller is to verify the lien actually attaches to the seller. Since a title search is done via name, a common name like John Smith might pull a lien from a guy that lives in another part of the state. If it is for sure the seller’s lien, they have to figure out how to clear it before closing can proceed. The simplest way to is to pay it at closing out of the seller’s proceeds, but other options might be contacting the party that placed the lien and negotiating. For instance, sometimes the seller has more than one property, and can ask the government for a partial release as to the property being sold. In other cases the debtor might be willing to reduce the lien to a manageable amount and that lower amount can be paid at closing.

Avoid the Issue Entirely Through Communication

“I always teach my Agents in my classes: Sometimes you have to have uncomfortable conversations,” says Scott Jones, Arkansas Attorney and Principle Instructor of Real Estate. “They should ask what mortgages and other liens on the property that the seller is aware of that will need to be paid off out of the seller’s proceeds? A lot of people don’t know they have liens besides a mortgage on the property…but sometimes you can put them on notice ahead of time.” Scott recommends the Agent stay calm during this conversation, and reassure them that it’s a normal part of the process to verify lien details on the property with the seller. “Stay calm, and your client will stay calm.”