In Sunday’s Inquirer, Bob Warner discussed City Hall’s intention to increase the number of properties auctioned off at monthly tax delinquent sheriff sales to 600 by January, 2012. The additional ink on this issue likely stems from “The Delinquency Crisis,” published in last week’s Inquirer, in cooperation with Plan Philly. You may remember, we mentioned this special report last week. Because of the city’s newly discovered desire to go after tax delinquent properties, we figured we’d provide you with a tool to direct their efforts. That’s right folks, you too can send properties on your block to sheriff sale, in just five easy steps!

325 S. 18th St.

1. Find your target

If you live anywhere but Center City (and maybe in Center City), there’s probably at least one house on your block that doesn’t seem to fit in. Maybe the windows are boarded up, possibly the paint is chipping off the bricks, there might be a crumbing cornice or perhaps there’s a tree growing out of the roof. Or maybe it’s a vacant parcel on a block that’s otherwise built-up. Or a drug den. While none of those characteristics guarantee that a property is tax delinquent, they certainly suggest the possibility.

So check it out! Go to the website for the Office of Property Assessment. Once on the site, click on the Property Search tab. Scroll to the bottom and click ‘I Accept.’ Now you can enter in the address of the property you want to find out about, and click through. You’ll then see the property owner and their address; if it’s City of Philadelphia or Philadelphia Housing Authority or Redevelopment Authority then you’re out of luck. Can’t foreclose on the government. Yet.

Assuming it’s a private owner, you’ll want to click on the ‘View Tax Balances’ button. Once on that page, you’ll see a spreadsheet going back between ten and thirty years, showing whether taxes have been paid every year or not. If taxes are delinquent to the tune of more than $1500, you’ve got a winner on your hands.

2. Double check with the city

Image by bighandking

Take a jaunt to the Municipal Services Building, located at 1401 JFK Blvd., just to the north of City Hall. You’ll know you’re in the right place if you see Frank Rizzo standing out front, frozen in time, hailing a cab. Go inside, go down into the basement, and find the desk for the Tax Revenue Department. It’s confusing down there. Don’t be embarrassed if you have to ask for help. Once you find the appropriate department, inform the person at the desk that you are interested in certifying a property for sheriff sale, and want to make sure it’s eligible. Three things can happen at this time.

1) The property owner has established a payment plan and the house is not eligible for sheriff sale. Darn.

2) The property tax liens are held by a private entity. We’ll cover this another time.

3) The city owns the liens, and you’re good to go

3. Certify it!

Walk out of the building and visit the bank of your choice to procure a bank check for $800 made out to The City of Philadelphia. Money orders are ok too. Return to the Revenue Department, and you’ll be given a number to wait for someone from the mysterious back office. Once you’re back there with one of the folks from Revenue, you’ll sit in their cube and watch them pull up the property information on their hundred-year-old computer. They will again verify that the property is eligible for sheriff sale and will ask you to sign a short document that looks like it’s been copied and recopied since the computers were new. Hand over your check, and woosh, you’re all done.

4. Wait Around

This could take awhile. Photo by Clem Murray. Image from

Now it’s time for the gears of bureaucracy to churn at their agonizing pace while you wait, wondering what’s taking so long. Expect this process to take about a year. Yes, it’s amazing that this takes an entire year. From what we understand, there are hundreds (thousands?) of folders in this office, each representing a property, and workers simply pick ’em at random. Or they pick the one on top. Or there’s only one person who works there. We don’t know.

We suggest checking in with the Law Department, Tax Division at 215-683-5000 once a month just to check in and see what’s going on with your property. Some of the folks who work there are very pleasant and helpful, and will shepherd your folder through the process. Of course, they’re probably doing the same for many other people, so we’re not gonna guarantee that this will actually speed anything up. The last conversation you have with your new best friend at the Law Department will be when they tell you that your property is going up for sale next month. Provided you’ve lived long enough to get to that point.

5. Go to the Sheriff Sale

That $800 you thought you gave away a year ago? That wasn’t a donation, it was an opening bid. But you have to show up at the sale if you want your money back! Sales take place at First District Plaza, at 3801 Market St., and when the sheriff sale finally happens, you will be the first bidder, at $800. Presuming you don’t want the house, you’ll quickly be outbid, and will be able to recoup your $800 shortly thereafter by revisiting the Revenue Department. And that should (hopefully) be the end of the line for the house that was dragging down your block, the lot where everybody was dumping their trash, or the people who were ruining your life.

This could be your block!

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Maybe one day, the good people who run our fine city will be able to handle this job on their own. In the meantime, we’re happy to help out. C’mon, you know you wanna try it out too!

Important note: This account was based on personal experience. We don’t guarantee that things will be as smooth or work out exactly the same way- we’ve only done this twice.

Additional note: We originally learned how to do this from a post on Phillyblog (which no longer exists) by Lisa Parsley. Thanks, Lisa!