There are a lot of quirks to Florida real estate laws that potential buyers should know about – but few are more important than the need to do a municipal lien search before closing the deal!
In this context, a lien refers to legal obligations garnered by a property, such as unpaid taxes or code violation fees. Unlike some other states, in Florida, these liens are attached to the property, not to the owner. In other words, put simply, if you buy a piece of Florida property with a large number of unpaid fees attached, you become responsible for paying those fees. And the only way to know about them is through a municipal lien search conducted by Florida real estate specialists.
In this article, we’ll discuss municipal liens in Florida, as well as the many ways a lien search protects you from unpleasant surprises after closing the deal.
I. Types of Municipal Liens
There are numerous types of liens, unpaid fees, and other penalties that might be attached to a Florida property. For example:
- Property taxes
- Mechanic’s liens (unpaid construction work)
- Code enforcement violations
- Building violations
- Special assessments
- Expired permits
- Utility-related fees such as damages or unpaid bills
- County debts attached to the property
It’s critical to understand that once a lien is attached to a property, that lien simply does not go away until it’s paid off – even if it leads to unintuitive situations. We once saw a deal for an empty lot which previously included a building that had been demolished. However, a large number of liens were attached to the property due to violations from that building.
Even though the building no longer existed, the new buyer still had to pay its fees.
Likewise, this also applies to so-called zombie properties, which have been completely abandoned by the owner. Such properties are often left for months or more, degrading through neglect and accumulating fees, until they are seized by the state. Once again, these liens remain attached to the property and transfer to the next owner, even if sold through a state auction.
So it is critical to have a Florida municipal lien search done whenever buying property, otherwise, you truly have no way of knowing what liens may be attached.
Which leads to another issue.
II. The Problem with Unrecorded Liens
One would expect that liens attached to a property would be centralized and easy to discover, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are so many potential sources of liens, including several different government agencies and private operations, that liens are often unrecorded and don’t show up with a simple land records search.
Nevertheless, these liens are still valid. Not knowing about them will not exempt you from paying them.
A few counties and municipalities in Florida do require full disclosure of liens, but you shouldn’t rely on this. The majority do not. A thorough municipal lien search conducted by professionals is the only way to be certain you know about all liens ahead of time.
III. Are Municipal Lien Searches Required?
Yes and no.
Florida state law does not actually require lien searches to be conducted before buying a property. However, they are required by a few specific counties, such as Miami-Dade and Broward.
Beyond that, they are also typically required by mortgage lenders and/or local Homeowner’s Associations (HOAs) before a deal is allowed to proceed. However that, of course, depends on each individual organization and their own policies.
However, given that you – as a buyer – definitely do not want to get hit by hidden post-closing costs, there’s really no reason to skip doing a lien search before buying.
IV. Timeframes When Requesting Lien Searches
Further complicating the matter is that you have to rely on multiple entities to receive a lien search request, process it, and get the information back to you. Some counties have strict policies in place, such as Manatee County mandating the search take no longer than 7 business days. Other counties or organizations may have looser turnaround times, up to 20 business days in Miami-Dade!
As a rule of thumb, assume that your municipal lien search could take up to a month to complete. So you’ll need to plan your closing dates accordingly – and give yourself time to review the results in case there’s a dealbreaker hidden in there. Real estate support professionals can help speed up the process, but of course, they will still be limited by the turnaround time of specific agencies and county/city governments.
In Short: When Buying Florida Property, Responsibility For Due Diligence is On You
The takeaway from all this is simple: you should never, ever purchase property in Florida without conducting a municipal lien search first. There are simply too many ways for liens to slip through the cracks and not show up in a basic records search. No matter what the lien is or what it was for, it will become your responsibility once the deal closes. Without a lien search, no one is obligated to volunteer that information beforehand, and it doesn’t matter how high the fees are.
That’s why you should contact Real Res before finalizing a real estate deal! For nearly 40 years, we have provided real estate support services including land surveys, lien searches, land surveys, and obtaining Letters of Estoppel. We can do the deep-digging due diligence necessary to fully understand the land you’re buying and any responsibilities that will transfer to you as the new owner.
Don’t let yourself get caught off guard with surprise liens, unexpected HOA demands, or other hidden post-closing fees. Contact Real Res before buying Florida property!