What is a sheriff sale?
A sheriff sale is a public auction of a property, such as a vacant lot, when the property has unpaid debts associated with it. This debt comes from former or current owners and any buyer would be responsible for paying it after gaining title to the property. Learn more about liens and debt here.
Because these sales take place to raise money for unpaid debt (such as property taxes), the proceeds of the sale are applied to these municipal liens. Applying the proceeds clears all liens from the property, even if the proceeds do not cover the liens entirely. Therefore, buyers of property through sheriff sale are able to gain title unburdened by debts or liens.
Check out this one-page handout for a quick guide to sheriff sale in Philadelphia.
Community gardens and sheriff sale
Whether you have an established garden or open space, or are considering starting a new one on a vacant lot, you should be aware of whether the property in has debt and may be eligible for sheriff sale.
Losing gardens to sheriff sale: If your garden is on a vacant lot with unpaid debt from a previous owner (such as real estate taxes or water bills), your garden may be at risk of being listed for sheriff sale, even if you have been there for some time and the owner is absent.
Buying a lot for open space: If you have access to funding to pay for part of the debt on a lot owned by a private owner, sheriff sale may be a good option to consider for gaining ownership of that lot clear of liens and debt. Note: if you have used your land for 21 years or more, you may be eligible for ownership through adverse possession. Please read our guide to adverse possession before pursuing a sheriff sale purchase of your lot.
How do I determine if my garden is at risk for a sheriff sale?
Using the address of your community garden or open space, look up whether the lot has unpaid tax debt using this tool.
Other unpaid debt, such as unpaid mortgage, water or L&I bills can trigger a sheriff sale as well. There are several factors that influence whether a property is sent to sheriff sale—see below for more details.
What should I do if my garden is at risk for a sheriff sale?
If you are operating a community garden or farm on a lot with unpaid tax debt or other liens from a previous owner, contact the Garden Justice Legal Initiative for assistance.
If you learn that the land you are gardening on is currently listed for sheriff sale, whether through a notice you receive or a sign posted on the lot, contact your District City Council member and request their assistance. Look up your City Council member using this tool. After you do this, if your garden is still at risk for sheriff sale, contact the Garden Justice Legal Initiative.
Types of Philadelphia sheriff sales
- Mortgage sales—brought by the bank that holds the unpaid mortgage, also known as a foreclosure sale, or
- Tax sales—brought by the City Law Department or its contracted outside collection agencies, or
- Nuisance lien sales—brought by the City Law Department on behalf of the Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I). These sales are used when properties have many unpaid, outstanding L&I bills.
When and how does debt trigger a sheriff sale?
Any property with an unpaid mortgage, unpaid tax bills, unpaid L&I bills, or any other lien is at risk for being put up for sheriff sale if the owner is at least three years delinquent in paying back the debt. However, several factors influence if and when a property is sent to sheriff sale, including the amount of debt, the length of delinquency, whether the owner entered into a payment plan, and the value of the property.
Who decides which properties get put up for sheriff’s sale?
The decision whether to send a property to sheriff sale does not lie solely with the City. Either the City or its two outside collection agencies, Linebarger or GRB, along with the Court, makes tax sale decisions, and mortgage companies make mortgage sale decisions.
Individuals can also request that a specific tax-delinquent property be sent to sheriff sale by contacting the entity that holds the tax liens. Look up real estate taxes and real estate tax liens using this tool.
Contact the Sherriff’s Office for more information.
What happens during and after this sale?
In a mortgage sale, the mortgage company sets the bid minimum. In a municipal (tax or L&I) lien sale, the City or its collection agencies sets the bid minimum. When the property is sold, the sale proceeds are applied to the remaining municipal liens. Applying the proceeds clears all liens from the property, even if the proceeds do not cover the liens entirely. This way, the new owner has clear title to the property, without debt. For more information on the sheriff sale process, visit https://www.officeofphiladelphiasheriff.com/.
Click here to look up whether your prospective property has debt and is a candidate for sheriff’s sale (also see the guide).
More resources for starting a community garden, farm or open space
Learn best practices and the latest updates on COVID-19 and urban agriculture in Philadelphia.
Like any business or organization, running a garden or farm creates some risk. Find out what you need to know about insurance and liability to protect yourself, your organization and your garden.
Here’s how to follow Philadelphia building code when building a shed or other structure on your community garden or farm.
If vacant land you would like to use as green space is currently owned by a private landowner, you can often make an agreement with them to use the land. Here’s how.
Learn more about how to license, lease, and purchase land from the City of Philadelphia and its various agencies.