Liens and Debt

Philadelphia Liens and Debt: What You Need to Know Before Acquiring Privately Owned Vacant Lots

How to handle encumbered property in Philadelphia

You are gardening, or thinking of gardening, on a vacant lot that is privately-owned.  You are interested in acquiring this property one day. However, unlike City-owned vacant land, privately-owned lots may carry layers of unpaid debt left behind by an absentee or deceased property owner. Knowing about what unpaid debts, also known as liens, exist on the property is critical if you wish to obtain free and clear title—or title without any debts or liens—to a property. 

Gaining ownership of land with debt–Frequently asked questions.

How are possession, ownership, and title to property related? What are the differences between them?

Title to property is a legal term for the bundle of rights, such as enjoyment and use of a property, that come with ownership. A document indicating title, such as a deed, is often necessary to prove ownership and transfer ownership to another. As a gardener on a vacant lot, you may have physical possession of a property–you may be the only person who uses the land–but you do not have title, both the right to possess property and the legal possession of property.  

With legal ownership also comes the responsibility for all taxes and maintenance of the property. That means that if you gain title to a piece of property, you are responsible for unpaid debts, even if they were left behind by a previous owner. 

What is “encumbered title” versus “free and clear title”?

“Free and clear title” just means that no one besides the title-holder has a right to the property because property owners or purchasers have paid off any debt that may have existed, or there was never any unpaid debt to begin with.  A title is “encumbered” if there are mortgages, liens, or other debts attached to a property. Once debts are paid, however, the owner may enjoy free and clear title to his or her property.

What types of debt could an owner incur on a property?

In Philadelphia, owners may have various types of debt, including licenses and inspections (L&I) liens, mortgage liens, gas liens, real estate tax liens, water and sewage liens, and utility liens.

What is a lien?

Lenders use liens to secure, restrict the use of, or encumber property where debts owed have not been paid. If a property has a lien, it means that there is unpaid debt, and the creditor (the lender) that is owed the debt can potentially claim the property to make sure the debt is paid. 

How is a lien different from other types of debt?

Liens differ from other types of debt because they give the lender the right to seize property. For example, if a property owner does not pay real estate taxes, the city of Philadelphia can file a court action to give the City an “interest in” the property equal to the amount of unpaid taxes.  The City can then claim its “interest in the property,” by selling the property at sheriff’s sale and collecting the money owed to it from the sale proceeds. See more information about sheriff’s sales here.

What to do if a vacant lot has a lien on it

What if the privately-owned property where I’m gardening has a lien or other debt attached to it?

If you are not considering ownership, but are just interested in using the land for a period of time, then liens and debts on the land are irrelevant. Learn more about making agreements with private landowners here. If you are trying to gain title to the property in order to ensure your garden’s security in the long-term, however, liens and debts are critical to consider.  

 Gaining ownership of a property burdened by debts or liens means you will be responsible for paying off debt. Of course, getting the lien or debt paid by the owner before the land is sold is the simplest way to remove a debt or lien. However, sometimes this is not possible, whether the previous owner cannot be found, cannot afford to pay the debt, or is deceased.

You also have the option to pay off the debt yourself upon purchasing the property. However, these debts can be quite costly, and this may not be a practical option for you or your organization. In that case, there are other options to clear the debt. Working with the city of Philadelphia is key when getting a lien cleared in order for title to transfer.

Other than paying off the debt myself, what other tactics can I use to get liens or other debt removed so that I can own the property “free and clear”?

Currently, the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, L&I, the Law Department, various City agencies, and advocates are developing solutions to return privately-owned vacant lots to productive uses in Philadelphia.  Interim solutions to put these vacant lots to use include: sheriff’s sales, eminent domain, adverse possession, conservatorships, and connecting owners of vacant properties with Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and other community resources.  See the Garden Justice Legal Initiative’s fact sheets: Acquiring Privately-Owned, Vacant Lots for Gardening: Adverse Possession, and Acquiring Privately-Owned, Vacant Lots for Gardening: Tactics for Ownership to learn about these solutions.

Types of Liens

The following types of liens can help you determine what kinds of debt are attached to the property where you’re gardening. For the most part, tax, L&I, gas, and water liens are the most important to consider, since the largest sums are typically owed with these liens.

Licenses and Inspections (L&I) liens

  • What are they? L&I liens are imposed against the property owner for failure to pay fees for demolition, trash removal, etc.
  • How do I determine if this lien exists on my garden? For a map detailing licensing and inspection violations, see: https://www.phila.gov/map and select “violations” and “view map.”  Often, if you review on the map where demolition has occurred, there will likely be a related demolition lien that has not been paid.  In certain circumstances, the City has forgiven L&I liens in order to clear title to the land.

Mechanics liens

  • What are they? When a property owner fails to pay a contractor or subcontractor for work performed on a property, the contractor can place a mechanics lien on the property, placing a hold on the title so that the property can’t be sold without the owners first paying the contractor or subcontractor.
  • How do I determine if this lien exists on my garden? Contractors and subcontractors can file a lien claim with the Court of Common Pleas, and you can search for pending or previous mechanics lien actions brought against a property owner in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas at courts.phila.gov (under “search court records” click “trial division-search civil dockets,” then “search by person name or company name”).

Mortgage liens

  • What are they? Mortgage liens are legal claims against a mortgaged property from a bank that holds a mortgage loan for the property, which must be paid when the property is sold.
  • How do I determine if this lien exists on my garden? You can search for pending or previous mortgage foreclosure actions brought against the property’s owner in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas at courts.phila.gov (under “search court records” click “trial division-search civil dockets,” then “search by person name or company name”). The absence of a mortgage foreclosure action, however, does not always mean that there is not an outstanding mortgage on the property.

PGW (Gas) liens

  • What are they? PGW liens, or Gas liens, are filed against properties for unpaid gas bills.
  • How do I determine if this lien exists on my garden? The Department of Records at City Hall has this information.  You can also search for execution actions involving gas liens.  These cases occur when the City files a lawsuit against a property owner for the amount of unpaid gas bills.  To search online, go to courts.phila.gov; under “search court records,” click “trial division-search civil dockets,” then “search by person name or company name”).

Real estate tax liens

  • What are they? Real estate tax liens may be issued by local governments as a way to collect real estate taxes, such as Philadelphia property taxes, that have gone unpaid by property owners.  If the taxpayer does not pay the taxes due, the tax lien holder can gain title by foreclosing on the property.
  • How do I determine if this lien exists on my garden? The City’s Office of Property Assessment (OPA)’s “property search” feature provides information about a property’s real estate tax charges and real estate tax liens here: https://opa.phila.gov/opa.apps/Search/SearchForm.aspx?url=search.  The “view tax balances” tab shows overdue real estate taxes by year, and indicates whether the lien is held by the City or an outside collections agency.  You can also research real estate tax liens via the Prothonotary’s Locality In Rem Index at City Hall, room 262. For a “how to” on researching these liens in this index, see courts.phila.gov/pdf/forms/Prothonotary/Instruction-Real-Estate-Tax-Liens.pdf.

Utility liens

  • What are they? Utility liens are imposed against property for unpaid utility bills.
  • How do I determine if this lien exists on my garden? The Department of Records at City Hall has information on utility liens.  You can also search for execution actions involving utility liens at www.courts.phila.gov (under “search court records” click “trial division – search civil dockets,” then “search by person name or company name”).

Water and Sewer liens

These fact sheets address some basic points of property law and debt and lien processes.  It is recommended that gardeners with remaining questions contact the Garden Justice Legal Initiative or an attorney.  In addition to this factsheet, gardeners interested in acquiring vacant lots should consult the Garden Justice Legal Initiative’s Acquiring Privately-Owned, Vacant Lots for Gardening series of factsheets for specific tactics to gain ownership.

We hope you found this information useful. You may also be interested in learning about How to Reach a Private Land Use Agreement, along with How to Gain Access to Land in Philadelphia through Conservatorship.

This information is accurate as of 2013 when Grounded in Philly was first launched; however, some information may have changed since then. Although The Public Interest Law Center works to make sure the information on the website is accurate and up to date, and has fixed inaccuracies that have come to our attention, we make no claim as to the accuracy of all of this information. We recommend that you consult with a licensed attorney if you want assurance that the information on the website and your interpretation of it are appropriate for your particular situation. We are continuing to improve Grounded in Philly’s accuracy and usefulness.

If you see something on this page that appears to be inaccurate, please contact Jonathan McJunkin.

More resources for securing access or ownership of land for your garden or farm

How to Obtain Land Through Adverse Possession

Gaining land ownership through adverse possession in Philadelphia requires a 21 year statutory period before you can obtain the title to the land or property.

Philadelphia Stormwater Charge: Community Garden Discount

Here’s how you can get a discount on your Philadelphia stormwater bill for your community garden.

About Neighborhood Gardens Trust

The Neighborhood Gardens Trust is a crucial resource for the preservation of gardens and community green space, providing a trust for public land in Philadelphia.

Conservatorship of Vacant Properties

Conservatorship is a helpful tool to obtain the rights to manage a property in order to return it to productive use and into compliance with code.

Gardening Without Ownership

You don’t need to own vacant land to establish a community garden or green space in Philadelphia, but gardening without ownership comes with risks. Find out how to get started.

Licenses, Permits, and Regulations

If you plan to sell food produced in your farm or garden–especially prepared foods–you should be aware of Philadelphia laws about food safety & preparation.

Water For Your Garden

There are several options in Philadelphia for providing water to gardens and urban farms.

Employment and Labor Law

If you are looking to hire workers or have volunteers in your community garden or urban farm, you need to comply with state and local labor laws.