That was Harlen Ward’s reaction to hearing that someone else now owns part of his Auburn backyard.
At a King County auction, someone had purchased a 5-foot-wide, 300-foot-long strip of earth, without street access, that runs between Ward’s and his neighbor Joe Hoeft’s property.
“It’s maybe big enough for a sidewalk,” Ward said. “A sidewalk that goes nowhere.”
Also perplexing, at first glance: Why the plot, sandwiched between four single-family homes, exists in the first place — and why the county put it up for sale. Nobody even knows its precise boundaries, because while the long squiggle of land is marked on county property maps, it hasn’t been surveyed. Ward and Hoeft said they always knew the skinny parcel existed but couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to buy it.
“They’re going to have to prove to me where it’s at,” Hoeft said. “As far as I know, I own everything from the road to the fence.”
Ward and Hoeft are not the only Seattle-area homeowners to learn that patches of their yards and driveways have been bought out from under their feet by Laguna Beach entrepreneur Ben Harris, who trades in land up and down the West Coast.
Harris is marketing those parcels — often inaccessible, typically unbuildable — for thousands of dollars.
The business model may prove, in the words of Michael Harter, a Spokane broker specializing in county-auctioned land, that in Seattle’s sizzling property market, “every piece of land must be worth something.”
Harris, who mainly operates through LLCs, is currently selling 26 properties in King, Pierce and Lewis counties, according to his website, WestviewLand.com. Most of his business, he said, is in buildable lots for single-family homes — though, he said, “I do own some odd ones as well.”
“Odd,” in this case, includes a bit of driveway between two Seward Park homes, which Harris is selling for $9,950.
Then there’s a 508-square-foot triangle squeezed by three Mercer Island backyards, marketed as “in a nice neighborhood,” and listed for $7,450.
Also up for sale on Harris’ website is the long, skinny parcel in Ward’s backyard. Price: $3,950.
Many of those plots were created by accident, when neighboring parcels were mismeasured or inaccurately described in county record books. Others may be private roads, vacant subdivision plots or parcels left out of a title transfer.
Neighboring property owners may never know the phantom parcels exist — but the county still charges taxes.
If no one pays, the county forecloses and puts the land up for auction. One famous California case led to embarrassment and legal battles when a couple bought a private road in San Francisco’s exclusive Presidio Heights community at a 2015 tax foreclosure auction, then contemplated charging residents for parking.
Parcels not purchased at tax foreclosure auction are offered up by the county one last time, at tax title auction.
Those auctions present the dubious opportunity for buyers (and neighbors) to take another bite on property so undesirable it’s been passed over once before, said King County property agent Amanda Tran. Occasionally, profitable pieces of land come up for bid, but tax title auctions tend to be full of head-scratcher parcels, “odd-shaped, slivers of people’s yards,” Tran said. “Tax title auctions are the depository of last resort.”
Tran said the county notifies property owners by letter when an adjacent parcel is for sale at county auction. But if adjacent property owners demur, those odd-shaped parcels don’t tend to attract buyers.
Except for Ben Harris.
Unlike sheriff’s property auctions — which in King County, are held every Friday outside the King County Administration Building — many counties have moved tax foreclosure and title auctions online, to sites like bid4assets.com.
That makes it easier for non-Seattleites like Harris to scoop up bottom-of-the-barrel local land.
In King County alone, Harris has purchased at least 30 properties since January 2018, according to county records. He often gets the land simply for the price of back taxes, typically between $1,000 and $4,000 — though the bidding has gone as high as $38,900 for a potentially buildable, 20,000-square-foot Rainier Valley lot.
Harris has sold 11 bargain-basement King County plots in the past two years, many to neighbors.
“They’re usually pretty happy about it,” he said, because tacking on a tiny parcel to their plots could end up adding more value to their homes than whatever they pay Harris. The value of residential property in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties has grown by nearly 50% in the past five years.
Buyers can also be locals looking for deals. Some have sunk thousands into land they’ll likely never be able to build on.
Attorney Kristian Beckett knew the Carnation land he bought from Harris last June, for $12,950, was marked unbuildable by the city — but, he said, “I figured for what I paid, it was probably worth the gamble.”
Recent college graduate Antony Mbugua put $7,450 on his credit card to buy 3,700 square feet of land from Harris in Bellevue’s Lake Heights neighborhood. He said he was property shopping and noticed “the price was lower than most other land in Bellevue, so why not?”
Beckett and Mbugua struck out, though. Their parcels turned out to be on steep slopes, requiring expensive geotechnical surveys before they can even begin to think about building.
For neighbors, watching slivers of land just a few feet from their homes hit the open market can induce anxiety.
In Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood, a “For Sale” sign mysteriously appeared in Dylan Kingsella’s front yard last summer.
Kingsella, who owns his home and certainly had not put it on the market, was confused until he realized what was actually for sale: a nearby alley, leading to a neighbor’s driveway. (Harris said he put up the sign to prompt neighbors’ interest in the plot.)
The parcel has easements specifying it can’t be blocked — disappointing one potential buyer, who asked Kingsella whether he could park an RV in the alley. Those easements make the land virtually worthless, Kingsella said.
Still, “If I had a house that needed the easement, I would buy it to avoid headache in the future,” he said. “The only value is peace of mind.”