Florida’s recording statute gives priority to the real property lienholder who is first to record in the public records of the county where the property is located. There are certain limited exceptions to this general rule. One of the exceptions that most mortgage lenders doing business in the state of Florida are familiar with is the exception for the first lien priority created by Florida statutes for ad valorem or real estate taxes assessed by the property appraiser against real property.

Previously, mortgage lenders could accurately quantify the amount of the potential prior lien for unpaid real estate taxes that could prime their lien by examining county tax records. However, under the very recent case of Miami-Dade County vs. Landowne Mortgage, LLC, 2017 Fla. App. Lexis 14751 (3rd DCA), this analysis may no longer be accurate when refinancing an existing homeowner. In the case, Miami-Dade County filed a 2014 tax lien against the property on which Landowne had previously secured its first mortgage in 2007. The 2014 Miami-Dade tax lien imposed against the property was for up to 10 years worth of improper homestead exemptions previously received by the present owner of the property during his prior years of ownership. Florida Statutes, Section 196.161 allows property appraisers a look back period of 10 years to recoup the amount of any homestead exemptions improperly received, plus a 50% penalty and 15% interest. However, prior to this most recent ruling, it was not clear that a tax lien filed against a property for improperly received homestead exemptions would have a retroactive effect, which would prime the prior recorded lien of a mortgage granted by a lender who had no knowledge of the existing property owner’s improper claim of a homestead exemption.

This problem does not arise in connection with loans to homeowners who are buying a home and obtaining purchase money financing (as opposed to refinancing an existing loan) because the tax lien for improperly received homestead exemptions will only attach to the property owned by the non-exempt owner at the time the tax lien is filed. Prior to the filing of a tax lien of this nature, any purchaser for value of the property on which the improper homestead exemption was claimed will take free and clear of this retroactive tax lien.

Cash strapped local governments aided by ever improving data gathering techniques and the Miami-Dade County vs. Landowne Mortgage, LLC decision may  increasingly turn to real estate tax revenues presented by improperly claimed homestead exemptions. Accordingly, residential mortgage lenders who are refinancing loans for existing homeowners should seek advice from loan counsel who can effectively address this new landscape.

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