Newlyweds bought their house, but they didn’t know the backyard didn’t come with it

Fircrest couple discovers they don't own their backyard

Newlyweds bought their home in March, but didn’t know the property line ended inches from their back door. Now they have to buy the land from Pierce County at a public auction.
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Newlyweds bought their home in March, but didn’t know the property line ended inches from their back door. Now they have to buy the land from Pierce County at a public auction.

In March, Sarah and Jason Kriess became the owners of a two-story home in Fircrest with a landscaped backyard abutting South 19th Street.

Or so they thought — until this month, when the newlyweds learned their quaint backyard will be sold at public auction Monday.

“It’s our entire backyard,” Sarah Kriess said. “We have a shed, but we don’t actually own the land the shed is on.”

When Kriess told her husband they didn’t own the property outside their back door, his reaction was a mix of disbelief and amusement at the absurdity of the situation.

“He said ‘That’s it, I’m not mowing it anymore,’ ” Kriess said.

Since learning Nov. 18 from a flier in the mail their backyard was for sale, the Kriesses have searched for answers.

The home has sold multiple times, so how did the discrepancy go undiscovered? At 0.08 acres, the land sandwiched between the couple’s Columbia Avenue house and the busy intersection of South 19th and Orchard streets is too small to be anything but a backyard.

“Our agent and the seller’s agent are both perplexed by it,” Kriess said.

We thought we already bought our backyard.

Sarah Kriess, Fircrest resident

The story begins in 1989, the state Department of Transportation condemned the land for road right of way. A decade later, the state sold the two parcels to the then-owner of the Columbia Avenue house.

That previous owner never did a boundary line adjustment, which would have consolidated the three parcels under one tax identification number and prevented the house from being sold without its backyard.

In 2009, she stopped paying taxes on the backyard. In 2012, she lost the Columbia Avenue home to foreclosure, according to county tax records.

The bank took ownership of the land with the house because that property was tied to a mortgage, said Kim Culbertson with the county’s foreclosure avoidance program.

The woman remained owner of the backyard until June and July of 2015 when the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s Office tried to notify her that it planned to sell the land for unpaid property taxes.

The county sent notices by certified mail to the owner’s last known address in Kalama. But by then, the woman had died, according to her online obituary. A family member signed for the mail, but never contacted the county.

Not notified were the people who owned the Columbia Avenue house at the time. State law doesn’t require the county to notify surrounding property owners when land is for sale in a foreclosure auction. The county only notifies the property owner and anyone with a lien against the land, said Culbertson.

Since neither the woman nor her family had taken steps to pay off the property taxes, the county proceeded to auction. But no one purchased the yard in the foreclosure auction, so it was conveyed to the county as tax title property.

In 1989 the state Department of Transportation condemned the land. A decade later it sold two parcels to a woman who has since died. The woman lost the home to foreclosure in 2012.

Now the county’s facilities management department is again trying to sell the land to put it back on tax rolls. That’s where the Kriesses come in.

They don’t know whether any of the previous owners of their home were aware that they didn’t own the backyard. Washington state doesn’t require a land survey as a condition of sale, but does require sellers complete a disclosure statement with questions about the property’s title and whether a boundary survey was done.

A real estate listing for the home on Redfin advertises a “large yard and deck” with photos of the backyard. Zooming in on a map on the site shows the house parcel for sale, but not the two backyard parcels.

Sarah Kriess looked up the property on the county tax parcel search website before buying it, she said, but didn’t look at the map. If she had, she would have seen the three lots.

The Kriesses will bid on their backyard in the online auction next week. The auction site lists the minimum asking price for the two parcels at $3,000. The couple hopes they don’t end up in a bidding war.

They don’t blame anyone, but they aren’t “super excited” to have to buy land they thought they owned.

“I think in terms of lessons learned, every time I buy a property now I’m going to look at the tax map or request a (land) survey,” Sarah Kreiss said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley