One way or another, property taxes always get paid.
Unfortunately for landowners, the collection process can be upsetting.
That's certainly the case in Patterson, where about 120 homeowners in the Walker Ranch development have been warned their homes may be sold at tax auctions unless back property taxes are promptly paid.
Here's the problem: The delinquent taxes are from 2003 tax bills sent to the owner of two parcels of land, which eventually were subdivided into lots for Walker Ranch.
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That previous landowner, SFSG LLC of Newport Beach, didn't pay the taxes before selling the property to the real estate developer, Richmond American Homes. The developer didn't pay those taxes, either, before it built houses and sold them to families.
Since then, many of those families have resold their homes or had them repossessed by mortgage lenders that resold them to others.
Ruben Ramjattan bought one of those foreclosed Walker Ranch homes last year, and he was assured the property was free and clear of liens or unpaid taxes.
"There was nothing that showed up on the title insurance company's report," said Ramjattan.
That's why he was shocked this week to get a certified letter from the Stanislaus County tax collector demanding $30,698.42 be paid by June 30.
Many of his neighbors got the same bill. Others in Walker Ranch were told $18,094.58 was owed. The amounts differ depending on where the homes are in the subdivision.
"People here might have a heart attack stressing out over this situation. It's causing a lot of upheaval in our community," Ramjattan said. "Ordinary people are up in arms."
The neighbors are abuzz about the delinquent taxes and what to do to save their homes.
"The tax collector shouldn't be putting the burden on us with this kind of letter," Ramjattan said. "We have nothing to do with it."
Tax Collector Gordon Ford said he has no choice: The tax burden is attached to the property.
State law gives landowners five years to catch up on delinquent taxes, then the property can be sold at a tax auction. The next auction will be in February.
"It's not up to me who's going to pay the taxes, but they're owed," Ford said. "We go through this kind of thing each year, and eventually somebody pays it (before the property is auctioned off)."
Ford said that during land deals sometimes the seller agrees to pay back taxes, and sometimes the buyer agrees to pay the bill.
"I don't know who had agreed to make the payment (for Walker Ranch). I just know an amount is owed," Ford said. "I don't care who pays it as long as it is paid in a lump sum."
Ford said title insurance companies often end up paying delinquent taxes that they somehow missed during their title search. Most homeowners buy title insurance to protect against such problems.
"If it were me (getting a bill for delinquent taxes), I'd go back and look at my title insurance policy and read what it says," Ford said.
Developer says it will pay
There may be another solution for the Walker Ranch homeowners. The housing developer, Richmond American Homes, has been in contact with members of the tax collector's staff and indicated it will pay off the debt within a week.
"We are currently working with the county to resolve this issue," Kelli McFarland, national spokeswoman for Richmond American Homes, said.
That's good news for Walker Ranch families, but they aren't the only ones who got warned this week that unpaid bills from previous landowners could jeopardize their homes.
Thirty owners of Modesto town houses near Snyder and Dale avenues got tax bills for about $3,500 from a 2003 debt. Those homes had been owned by a set of investors before being split into parcels and sold during the real estate boom.
Just as with the Patterson debt, the tax collector said the Modesto town houses can be auctioned off if that outstanding bill isn't paid.
There are similar past-due property tax bills resulting from parcel splits elsewhere in Modesto, Riverbank and Waterford. But only a handful of homeowners are involved in those delinquencies, according to the tax collector's office.
The longer it takes to pay the delinquent taxes, the more the bill goes up. California tax collectors charge 1.5 percent interest each month -- that's 18 percent per year -- for unpaid taxes.
Ford said it's important property owners take tax bills seriously. He fears, however, that so many official-looking-but-bogus notices are mailed to homeowners that real notices from his office sometimes are ignored.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2196.