Updated: Jan 11, 2021
“Buy land, they're not making it anymore.”
― Mark Twain
When I was a teenager my father purchased some land south of town with the intention of building a house and moving the family there. Growing up in Raytown, a small middle-class suburb, the idea of moving “to the country” excited me. Like most people in our neighborhood we had an average size yard (about ¼ acer) but this new plot of land was 20 acers. (For those that do not know an acer is roughly the size of a football field.) The land was undeveloped but was previously used for wheat farming, so it was relatively flat and about 90% clear.
We drove out there one Saturday morning to scout it out and dream of what might be. As a young man filled with energy and a sense of adventure I broke off from the rest of the family and made a beeline for the small grove of trees at the back. It was late summer and there was plenty of vegetation to slow me down, but I was eventually rewarded with a peaceful spot in the Northeast corner tucked away from view. There were no buildings, and the only signs of humanity was the barbed wire that marked the property lines. I climbed a tree and surveyed the area finding only a few cows and one very friendly horse. The breeze was cool, the sky was blue and for this city kid it was a slice of heaven.
That following spring they laid a gravel driveway and broke ground on my parents dream home. We visited the spot often to check on their progress and the meticulous knit picking of my father drove the foreman crazy. I walked through the framework of the house and imagined what it would look like when it was complete but the real joy for me came from traipsing around the property. We ended up placing trees all along the driveway, added a pond with a dock and built an impressive gate flanked with stone eagles that stand to this day.
I lived there till I went away to college, got married and started my own life but the idea of having my own plot of land lingered with me. As a geocacher I love to explore the natural world and although I am a homeowner with a sizable yard I’ve never really owned a large parcel of land. I have often considered using some of my savings to buy up plots of land but only recently have I taken the next step of looking into the available options. It turns out counties will seize property from land owners who are behind on their taxes by several years (typically 3 or more) and will auction them off.
In Missouri these auctions happen at 10:00 AM on the last Wednesday of August in almost every county in the state while the date varies for counties in Kansas. Conduct an internet search for “Tax Sales <your county name>” to find out the specifics in your area. The county needs to make a concerted effort to communicate with the property owner by sending certified letters and placing a notice on the property indicating their intent to conduct an auction to recoup their tax revenue. Then they will post the list of parcels on their website and typically in a couple of local newspapers. Those interested in bidding need to register with the county assessor office and sign an affidavit that they do not owe any back takes in the county and are not serving as an agent for the current owner.
The property owner then typically has until the close of business the day before the auction to pay their balance or get an injunction from a judge. In this area the auctions were held almost exclusively on the steps of the county courthouse until recently. They function with an auctioneer calling them out one plot at a time. Occasionally the auction would spill over into a second day if there were a lot of properties. The winning bidder would be expected to pay before the end of the day and in some cases within 30 minutes of winning. With the Covid pandemic many local governments decided to delay their auctions or shift them to an online bidding service like Civicsource.
Preparing for an auction I’ve learned requires a great deal of time and research. While much of the data the counties shares is the same (location, size, starting bid, zoning, etc.) the way they present the data varies wildly. I found that I would need multiple browsers open to hunt down all the different data sources compiling it into a Google doc so that I could then access it easily when I did site visits. I usually started by looking up everything in my price range both in Google maps and on the counties GIS map (Geographic Information System). The GIS pages are important because the auctions are listed by legal description (e.g. “West 1/2 of Lot 8, and all of Lot 9, Block 4, WESTERN HIGHLANDS 1ST ADDITION”). If the property has a mailing address you can use that but if its unimproved (no building) you need to compare the assessors map with Google maps by looking at cross streets to triangulate the correct location if you want to see street views.
After a cursory review of all the available lots and filtering out the ones you have no interests in you need to try and determine if the starting bid is at least equal to or below the value of the property. The starting bid is calculated from the balance of outstanding taxes plus any processing charges necessary to file paperwork and get the property ready to be legally sold. In addition to that you are expected to pay the property taxes for the current year (often at a later time). In addition to the taxes it is possible the property has a lean against it that as the new owner would transfer to you so it’s important to factor this in when calculating the potential ROI. You can either do this research yourself at the assessor’s office or by hiring a firm to do a title search.
Once you have a pared down list it is time to hit the road. I prefer to make my own Google map to make it easier to create a route, this is especially helpful if you have a lot of places to visit. Google has made it rather easy to build maps with routes from your laptop, but it is still quite challenging from a cell phone so be sure you’ve done this step before you leave home! Most of the properties will be abandoned but whether they are occupied or not it’s important to note you are not allowed to access them until you’re the winning bid and have a certificate of sale giving you legal access. Just the same you can learn a lot standing on the sidewalk that you cannot from Google street view.
If it has a building, is it occupied? What is the current condition (street views can be years old)? Do the utilities appear to be on? What is the condition of the roof, windows, yard, fence, etc.? If it is just a plot of land is it near other properties that are developed and in good shape? Does it appear to be close enough for utilities to be ran? Does it look like someone has dumped garbage on it? Is it primarily overgrown? What is the terrain like, flat or hilly? All of these things have to be considered when deciding if it’s worth pursuing.
When the day of the auction comes if its in person you need to be there early to check in and get your bidding number then secure a decent spot. If it’s online add your preferred sites to a watchlist so you can easily keep tabs on them. Once bidding starts its easy to lose track of things and before you know it someone won with a bid far lower than you were willing to pay because you were focused on a different auction. Finally, like all online bidding processes don’t let your emotions bid for you. Once you hit the max you were willing to pay call it off and move on to the next one. If someone else wants it more it could be that they didn’t do the research, you did and isn’t really getting a deal.
What to do after you have won? Well that is a discussion for another day. (But I’d recommend hiding a geocache there first chance you get!)