LOS LUNAS — Prepared with everything from laptops and electronic spreadsheets to handwritten notes, nearly 200 people turned out last week hoping to grab a piece of the new American dream — property being sold on the cheap for back taxes.

A resident of New Mexico for only 10 months, Cheryl James came to last week’s auction looking for “absolutely anything” she could get a good deal on. The variety of properties offered drew her attention, with parcels ranging from vacant land to those with mobile homes and houses.

Garret Sego grew up in Valencia County and now lives in Albuquerque. He came to the auction because he spotted a few pieces of land he felt might have value.

“This might be an opportunity for someone to get a home. The housing market is so crazy right now,” Sego said. “We’ll see.”

The unexpectedly-large crowd was ushered out onto the front steps of the old courthouse (now the county’s administration building) in Los Lunas, making for an iconic setting as the bidding got underway.

Many of the properties started with minimum bids of $600 or $700, but the 150 registered bidders weren’t shy about pushing the price up, hitting $2,000, $2,500 and even $10,000 for a parcel in short order.

The biggest sale in the first hour of the auction was a property that went for $80,000, and was the site of a single-wide mobile home, circa 1979.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
A healthy crowd of interested bidders turned out for last week’s delinquent property tax auction. There were 150 bidders total who bought up all 73 pieces of property offered.

“Everything went really well,” said Valencia County Treasurer Ron Saiz of last Wednesday’s auction. “We had quite a few properties since we haven’t had an auction in a few years due to COVID.”

Saiz said the state also sent someone from the property tax division to the Valencia County offices to help go through delinquent taxes and put together the list of nearly 190 properties that were advertised for auction.

When the list of delinquent properties hit the newspaper in late February, owners turned up to pay their bills. While 73 properties were successfully auctioned, more than 100 delinquent taxpayers came forward before the auction, said New Mexico Taxation and Revenue media contact Charlie Moore via email.

“(They) settled their accounts, either through full payment or by entering into installment plans,” Moore wrote.

Once a property is three years behind on property tax payments, the account is turned over to the taxation and revenue division for further collection or public auction.

The county treasurer said the 73 properties sold for a total of $710,200, of which the county will receive $87,691. After the state collects the fees, penalties and interest owed, the excess money received on a winning bid above the minimum bid is available to the former owner or to any other person who can show by court order they have a legitimate claim to the excess funds, Moore explained in his email.

“The property tax division holds onto excess funds for two years, after which it is turned over to the unclaimed property office,” he wrote.

While many property owners were able to pull their land back from the auction, now that it’s been sold, there’s still a chance to reclaim it. A former owner has two years to challenge the sale by proving one of four conditions — their delinquency was paid in full, they were already under an installment (payment) agreement, the state failed to notify them even though their address was in public records available through the county or there was a faulty assessment of some kind.

“The big thing for the county is we get these properties back on the tax roles,” Saiz said.

Now that the properties are back on the roles, Valencia County Assessor Celia Dittmaier said she wouldn’t be making adjustments to their valuations at this time.

“I don’t look at an auction the same as an at arms-length transaction,” Dittmaier said, referring to a typical real estate transaction. “It’s not your typical sale with a willing buyer and a willing seller.”

Before a re-evaluation would be considered, she said her department would look at real estate sales in the area first.

“We’re doing a study now, looking at all areas, to see what other properties are selling for,” she said. “At an auction, people can get into these bidding wars. One of the guys from the state was telling me at another auction there was a property that started at $4,000. No one bid, so they dropped the price to $400. When it came back, people got excited and bid it up to $6,000.”

Calling last week’s auction “very successful,” Moore said there are plans for another auction in Valencia County in late April consisting of more than 200 properties, many of which are contiguous and may lend themselves to easier development.

“The interest from the public was phenomenal, and we were able to recover a lot of tax due for Valencia County from both the sales and the taxpayers who came forward beforehand to settle their accounts,” Moore said in the email. “We want to especially thank the Valencia County treasurer, manager and sheriff for helping us to accommodate the large turnout and ensure that we could have a successful sale.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.