$10,000 homes? It's tax sale season in B.C., and one expert is cautioning prospective buyers

Hundreds of properties are listed for auction across B.C. as part of municipal tax sales. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Hundreds of properties are listed for auction across B.C. as part of municipal tax sales. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)

In Kelowna, B.C., a starting bid of $31,562 for a 10-acre lot valued at just under $5 million.

In the heart of the Comox Valley, a four-bedroom home starting at $12,931.

In Prince George, a mid-century rancher listed for less than $10,000.

It's tax sale season across B.C., when savvy investors stand to profit on the misfortune or missteps of others.

Every year, municipalities hold an annual auction on the last Monday of September — this year the auctions will be held on the 25th — where up for grabs are properties with three years' worth of unpaid taxes.

Bids start at the upset price, or the value of the unpaid tax and other fees.

The properties are usually listed at least a couple of weeks leading up to the auction, depending on that municipality's community charter.

However, the high-risk opportunity has been criticized as unfair and needing improvement.

Likelihood of ownership 'could very well be none'

Adam Langenmaier, director of financial services with the City of Courtenay, says these high-risk opportunities rarely pan out.

"If you take on average the number of properties advertised in the newspaper to the actual number that get to the property tax sale, it's a fraction of them," he said.

In Courtenay, the city had two properties listed for auction at the beginning of the week. By Friday, there was only one. Langenmaier says it's likely there will be none by next Monday.

Property owners only need to pay the first of the three years' worth of unpaid taxes to keep it from going to auction, Langenmaier says, and even if it does get sold, they usually have up to a year to still pay the taxes, plus an administrative fee and interest.

"You might buy every single property at tax sale in the province on the 25th and the likelihood that you would actually end up owning it could very well be none," he said.

High-risk sale

Langenmaier says in his years of experience as Chief Financial Officer of Courtenay and Powell River, he has only ever seen one property sold at a tax sale auction — a forested lot in the middle of the bush that someone in Ontario had inherited from their great-grandfather and had no intention of using.

As for the type of property owner who lets three years of municipal taxes accumulate on their home or business, Langenmaier says it runs the gamut from people facing tough financial times to foreign investors and those who, for whatever reason, simply forgot to pay.

For potential investors, tax sales can be a high-risk activity.

The listed properties are bid on as-is, and bidders cannot go onto the property to inspect it. It's up to them to do their research prior to bidding on a property to see if it might have any issues, like environmental damage, or be subject to other conditions like strata laws.

Even if the bidder is successful, they don't get possession of the property until a year after the auction.

If that doesn't happen — if the property owner pays up — the successful bidder gets the bid price returned to them, plus interest.

Vulnerable people at risk: ombudsperson

In the few cases where the sale does go through, there can be other issues.

In 2021 provincial ombudsperson Jay Chalke issued a report called A Bid for Fairness: How $10,000 in Property Tax Debt Led to a Vulnerable Person Losing Their Home.

The report highlighted the case of a woman in Penticton who lost her home and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity after the city auctioned off her house in 2017 — for a third of its assessed value.

Chalke's review found the woman, referred to as Ms. Wilson, had the money to pay off her taxes, but health concerns meant she needed help to submit the payments.

The report made five recommendations, including that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs develop plain language letter templates for municipalities to notify owners, review the upset price to better reflect the assessed value of a home, and issue best practices on how to protect vulnerable people.

The following year, the Okanagan township responsible for selling a man's property at a tax auction without any notice issued a public apology, and said it made "substantial changes" to its processes in the years since the sale.

The Township of Spallumcheen was also ordered to pay former landowner Anthony Morgan more than $350,000 for auctioning off his rural property without following its legal responsibilities to let him know about the 2017 sale, or the steps necessary to prevent it.