Swimming Pool Drifts Away From Homeowner

When is your swimming pool not actually your swimming pool? When it becomes the centerpiece of a confusing tax bill dispute between a homeowner and a city.

Sarita Murray, a Baltimore homeowner, says she's the victim of city workers who are unwilling to admit they made a mistake. The city says she failed to pay a property tax bill. Now a company has a tax lien on the property and her pool's gate is padlocked with a no trespassing sign.

"This has been devastating," says Murray, who bought the 1,295-square-foot house and the adjoining property for $90,000 in January 1996 and says she has canceled checks, as well as paperwork from the mortgage lender and the title company that handled her refinance to prove her property taxes were all paid up.

She says all she wants is for her two young children to once again enjoy the $25,000 swimming pool she put in for them in the vacant lot she owned adjacent to her 1929-built 3-bedroom, 2-bath home. The pool was built in 2005; Murray's dispute with the city began in 2007.
Murray had been receiving two property tax bills, one for each lot she owned. When she decided to put in the pool in, the city processed all of the necessary paperwork to consolidate the lots and approve her permit to build. "The city came out every step of the way," she said.

Upon completion of the pool, her two separate tax bills of $400 for the original unimproved lot and $2,300 for the house were then combined, she said. The new single tax bill came to $3,200, incorporating the combined amounts plus an increase. However, she still kept receiving a $400 bill for the lot with the swimming pool, which she thought was a mistake. At one point she even received confirmation from the city that the lots had been successfully consolidated.

Thinking the second bill was simply an error, Murray stopped paying it.

"We live in our backyard. This is our Cancun."

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After two years of the children splashing in the pool, Murray walked outside to remove some litter from her lawn one day in 2007. That's when she then saw a no trespassing sign posted on a tree in her yard. It said that ownership to the swimming pool lot had changed (for a mere $435 and some fees) and that her family would be trespassing if they used it.

What happened to Murray is not uncommon. Quite a few real estate investors have moved into buying tax lien certificates from cities as a way to get a quick turn on investment -- usually.

Murray's property was sold to the highest bidder who becomes the new debtor, a little like when a credit card company sells delinquent charge-offs to a debt-collector. The tax lien holder then tries to collect for a profit. If you don't pay up after a set period of time, it can foreclose on your property and try to sell it on the open market.

Murray admits the kids sometimes entered and went swimming anyway, and she didn't call them out. When tax lien holder Per Suit learned this was happening, they padlocked the gate and threatened to fill the pool with cement.

"I am paranoid every morning. I wake up if there is a truck going down the street; I'm wondering if they are coming to fill it in," she said.

She needed this issue resolved. "I called back to the city to the gentlemen who had helped me [when I built the pool]," said Murray. "He said, 'No, that's impossible we consolidated the lots.'" Another gentleman who got on the phone then told her, "Someone dropped the ball here. Those lots were never consolidated."

It's Hard to Fight City Hall

"When I started filing paperwork, the city changed the story several times," Murray told us. "They said I had an outdated tax bill, but any smart person knows when you refinance a lot, you have to pay any outstanding bills."

And how did the city explain her increased, single tax bill? Property values had gone up, they said, everyone's taxes increased. However, the taxes on the home's lot increased to more than combined amount of the lots previously, but the now-improved lot with the swimming pool was still $400.

It seemed to her that the city's story wouldn't hold water. So she took Per Suits to court to reclaim her property.

Murray's argument was that she was not properly served notice of an impending foreclosure. However, before the case even started, it was dismissed by a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge, who told her lawyer before the hearing, "There is no way you can win this," according to transcripts obtained by Stephen Janis of Investigative Voice, which published photos of her property.

Murray says she's tired of fighting. It's been two and a half years and a lot of legal dollars spent. Plus, she says, she thinks it would be difficult for Per Suit to sell the property to someone else because there is a cloud hanging over the title. Her mortgage lender still has a stake in the property, and she is still paying the homeowner's insurance for it.

"My goal is to make the kids as happy as I can make them," she says. "I think they've already shed as many tears over this situation as I have."

She said if she had to do it all over again she would've accepted Per Suit's very first offer of $10,000 and then just sued the city.

Although this has all been a pain in the rear, Murray says: "My fight isn't over. I will continue to fight until the fat lady sings." What her next move will be is unclear, but for Per Suit, it is trying to sell the otherwise empty lot, including the pool, for $43,000, but has yet to find a buyer. Murray has been advised to just settle with the company and buy the lot from them, but she hasn't made a decision. She just hopes that, one day soon, her kids will be able to swim in the pool again.

What to Do If This Happens to You

Consolidate your bills.

Don't ignore errors. Mistake or not, a bill is a bill until you clear up the mess.

Open your mail. Tax liens are commonly put on properties where owners are behind on either property taxes or even federal income taxes. In most cases, the taxpayer is provided with several letters of warning and requests for payment of back taxes or current taxes before a tax lien is implemented.

Regularly check your credit report. If the bill still goes unpaid, the government can foreclose on the property and sell it off for the amount of the unpaid debt and fees. An easy way to check if there is a tax lien against your property is to check your credit report, as it typically stays on your report for seven years. Also you can ask your mortgage lender to do a title search.

Keep your receipts. When you pay your property taxes, be sure to keep a copy of the receipt from the city and your canceled check ot bank statement proving payment. Or do like Murray did and have your lender pay the bill out of escrow. It too will keep proof of payment.

Plan your next move.

A Baltimore family has been locked out of their backyard pool by a tax lien holder.

Sheree R. Curry
, who has owned three homes, but never one with a swimming pool, is a three-time award-winning journalist who has covered real estate for six years. During her 20-year career, her articles have appeared regularly in the
Wall Street Journal, TV Week, and Fortune. She's been writing for AOL Real Estate since 2009 from a Minneapolis-area rental. She seeks a book publisher -- or at least a lender who'll give a reasonable mortgage rate to a self-employed mom.

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