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California Lien Search

A California lien search is an investigative inquiry that state residents can use to confirm the presence of a lien on property or real estate in California. Lien searches involve the examination of public records held by various government offices, including county recorders. It is typically performed to ensure a property title is clear and the owner's financial interests are secure. A lien search is typically recommended for potential buyers, sellers, and investors of real estate. California liens are managed as part of California civil court records by state and county courts; they are also accessible through Local Recorders Offices and the California Secretary of State. 

What is a Lien in California?

California liens are charges or claims against a piece of property. They guarantee the satisfaction of a debt or obligation (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1180). Any lien gives its holder a legitimate stake in a piece of property. Thus, if the underlying debt (or duty) is not fulfilled, the lienholder can take legal action against the owner, foreclose on, or seize the property to recover the debt.

Types of Liens in California

Liens may emerge from court actions, unpaid property taxes, business taxes, mortgages, and home equity loans. Consequently, there are different types of liens in California, such as:

Notwithstanding, liens can be broadly categorized based on certain parameters, such as their nature (general or specific), how they attach to property (voluntarily or involuntarily), and whether attachment is mandated by statute.

  • General Liens in California

In California, general liens are attached to all real estate and personal property that a debtor owns or has rights to. This includes their houses, nonexempt personal cars or vehicles, and vacant plots. This type of lien allows a lienholder to use any or all of a debtor's property to secure a debt's repayment. Examples of general liens are tax and judgment liens.

  • Specific Liens

As its name implies, specific liens only affect a specific property or asset. Creditors file this type of lien to ensure the satisfaction of an obligation tied to the property. Some examples of specific liens include deed of trust and mortgage liens.

  • Consensual vs Involuntary Liens

Liens attach to property in one of two ways in California: with a property owner's consent or without.

If a property is liened with its owner's approval, it is deemed a consensual or voluntary lien. A famous example is a mortgage lien. Meanwhile, when a lien is imposed on property without the owner's approval, it is an involuntary or nonconsensual lien. A tax lien is an example of an involuntary lien in California.

  • Statutory Liens

Statutory liens in California arise by operation of law or statute. In simple terms, the liens are authorized by law. As such, they do not require a debtor's consent or express agreement before attachment occurs. Construction, tax, and judgment liens are all examples of statutory liens. Another name for a statutory lien is an involuntary lien.

What is a Tax Lien in California

A tax lien secures the government's interest in property for the nonpayment of taxes. County, state, and federal agencies can impose a tax lien when a taxpayer defaults on a tax payment (Cal. Gov. Code §§ 7170 - 7174 and 27330; Cal. Rev. and Tax. Code § 3372). For example, a tax lien may be imposed on a taxpayer's property for unpaid property, sales, or income taxes.

In California, tax liens are both statutory and general—they are legislatively required and affixed to all California property and rights to property owned by a taxpayer, including after-acquired property.

Are Tax Liens Public Record?

Yes. Tax liens constitute public records under California's Public Records Act (CPRA).

Per Cal. Gov. Code §§ 7171 and 27330, a government agency perfects (makes valid and legally enforceable) a tax lien by recording or filing it with a designated office, which is often a county recorder's office. However, under Cal. Gov. Code § 7171(b), the Secretary of State's office is the place of filing for state tax liens against personal property.

Recordation creates a public record that notifies creditors of a legal claim on a taxpayer's property. Further, when the lien becomes public record, the taxpayer may be unable to buy, transfer, sell, or refinance the affected property. The lien may also limit their ability to obtain credit.

California Tax Lien Search

The first place to search for a tax lien in California is the clerk-recorder's office in the county where a taxpayer resides or where a property is physically located. Local recorders file tax liens at the request of different state government agencies, including the Franchise Tax Board (FTB), the Board of Equalization (BOE), and the Employment Development Department. Recorders also preserve records of tax liens filed by tax departments within their municipalities.

Each recorder's office maintains distinct record retrieval systems, but the following options are often available:

  • Online: Many recorder's office websites feature a land records index (otherwise called an official records index) that the public can access to find tax liens at no cost. For example, the Alameda County Clerk-Recorder maintains the Alameda County Real Estate Index for researching tax liens and other lien types filed in the county. A taxpayer's last name is often the primary keyword to check liens on property online. 
  • In Person: An alternative to online lien searches—or where no online index is provided—is to visit the recorder's office during regular business hours to inspect records for free. Plain and certified copies of California state tax liens are also available to in-person requesters at a fee, which varies by office. A person can also send a representative to the recorder's office to search for or purchase copies of California tax liens.
  • Mail: Mail ordering procedures and fees for tax lien records can be obtained from a clerk-recorder's website or by calling an office's designated phone line.

Usually, a mail requester must prepare and submit a written request to the local recorder's office. Each request should bear the taxpayer's name, recording date (or approximate range), book and page number, document title, and any other information expressly specified or that will aid the search. 

Also, inquirers must add their contact details (name, address, phone number), indicate if they need plain or certified copies, and include a check or money order payable to the clerk-recorder's office to process their order. Where a requester cannot determine the total order amount, they can include a blank check with a not-to-exceed amount on the memo line. Depending on the office, a credit card payment may also be acceptable.

Several offices also allow email, fax, and online requests for tax lien records. 

However, individuals seeking California state tax liens attached to personal property should access the Secretary of State's UCC Search portal.

Federal Tax Lien Search

Per Cal. Gov. Code § 27330 and IRM 5.federal tax liens affecting real estate in California are filed in the county where a property lies. In contrast, federal tax liens affecting personal property are recorded in the county where a taxpayer resides.,

Therefore, an individual conducting a federal tax lien lookup in California may visit, mail, search the online index, or otherwise query a recorder's office for records, as explained earlier. One may also enlist a title company or real estate attorney for a title search, or they may check for tax liens using a third-party online service.

What is a Lien on Property in California

A lien on property in California is any charge or encumbrance placed on property within the state to secure the performance of an act. "Property," as defined in Cal. Rev. Code §§ 103 and 104, refers to all matters and items, including real, personal, and mixed, that an individual can own. Real property (or real estate) includes vacant land, homes, buildings, and structures. In contrast, personal property is all tangible or intangible property besides real estate. Examples include mobile homes, personal vehicles, and business equipment and assets. 

Who can put a lien on a property?

Anybody to whom a property owner owes money or some obligation can put a lien on a property in California. Entities that often attach these encumbrances to property include lenders, financial institutions, contractors, state and local tax boards, and the courts.

How to put a lien on property in California

The procedure for putting a lien on property in California depends on the lien a party wishes to file. Certain liens require a creditor to give the debtor preliminary notice before filing, whereas some must be filed within a specific timeframe to be valid. As such, one should confirm state filing requirements with a legal advisor. Nevertheless, the following process is standard:

  • Locate the debtor's property and verify they own it. It is also important to check for other liens on the property, as this affects the payment order or priority if the property is foreclosed. Generally, lien priority is established by the recording date. 
  • Prepare a lien document. The document may be called a few different names—for example, an Abstract of Judgement for judgment liens or a Claim of Lien for construction liens. However, it should state the debtor's name, the amount owed, filing agency or party, and other relevant information.
  • File the lien document with the clerk-recorder's office in the county where the property lies (if placing a lien on real estate) or the Secretary of State's Office (if placing a lien on personal property). Proof of service or an affidavit of non-known address and a notice of lien may also be required.

Some counties provide forms for the filing process. For example, individuals filing a mechanics lien in San Bernardino County may obtain a form packet from the recorder's office.

  • Pay the filing fee. The total varies by the recorder's office, the number of pages to be filed, and whether the office will notify the debtor(s).

How to Find a Lien on Property in California

An individual performing a property lien search in California may begin by searching land records at a clerk-recorder's office in the county where a property is physically located or a debtor resides. If checking for liens on personal property, it is recommended to go through the California Secretary of State's office.

However, because lien records are not stored at one central location in California, paying a title company to perform a title search may be an efficient approach for persons who want to find liens on a property. Clients can also purchase title insurance from a title company, which secures them against losses due to title defects, including unknown liens.

  • Property Lien Search By Address

Government agencies that provide property lien searches in California require certain parameters to furnish records to inquirers. Normally, a person's name, the file number, or the document recording date are the standard search criteria, not an address. Such agencies do not record or index liens by property address.

Persons who want to check for liens on property by address in California may use a third-party online service instead. Many third-party aggregator websites provide an address search option for users seeking California public records, including lien records. However, such services are often fee-based.

  • Free Lien Search on Property

Performing a free property lien search in California is easy. An individual only has to walk into a local recorder's office during business hours or use an online search tool provided by a government department to find liens on property at no cost. 

What is a Mechanics Lien in California?

A mechanics lien (sometimes called a construction lien) is a charge or hold placed against property to recover an unpaid sum for a work of improvement. The lien can be filed by an owed contractor, subcontractor, equipment lessor, material supplier, laborer, design professional, or any other party involved in real estate construction or improvement.

A mechanics lien may limit a property owner's ability to sell or refinance the affected property. It can also force the sale (foreclosure) of the property to recover the debt. Cal. Civ. Code §§ 8400 - 8494 sets the guidelines for filing and releasing mechanics liens in California. 

California Mechanics Lien Search 

Searching for mechanics liens in California follows the same process as searching for any other lien recorded against real property in the Golden State. A person may visit the applicable county recorder's office (where a property lies) to conduct an official records search. No appointment is typically required.

Alternatively, they may send a letter to the recorder's office requesting a search of official records and the return of copies. Some recorder's offices also provide lien search tools online. 

What is a Mortgage Lien in California?

A mortgage lien arises from a mortgage—a loan used to purchase or maintain a home or other real estate. By taking out a mortgage loan, the borrower agrees to use the property as collateral or security for the debt, thereby creating a voluntary lien on the property. Mortgage liens establish a lender's financial claim to a property. Thus, if the borrower fails to repay the loan, the mortgage lender can lawfully seize or sell the property.

What is a UCC Lien in California? 

A UCC lien, or UCC financing statement, is a security interest filed against personal property to secure a debt or discharge of an obligation. UCC liens in California are governed by the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), indexed in Cal. Comm. Code, § 1101 et seq.

UCC Lien Search California

A UCC lien search in California can be performed through state and local agencies. Those searching for UCC liens affecting real estate may request land records maintained by the recorder's office in the county where a property lies. On the other hand, UCC liens attached to personal property can be researched through the California Secretary of State's office. Here's how to search and access free copies of UCC liens from the SOS: 

  • On a browser, go to the Secretary of State's UCC Search portal
  • Enter a name or file number into the search box. Users can also opt for an advanced search, which offers the following search parameters: 
    • Status (unlapsed or lapsed)
    • File type (financing statement, judgement lien, state tax lien, federal tax lien, or attachment)
    • File date
    • Lapse date 
  • Click "Search."

Search results include the debtor's information (name and address), file number, secured party's information (name and address), filing date, lapse date, and the UCC type.

Individuals with further questions can email the Secretary of State's Uniform Commercial Code staff by filling out a form on the agency's website. Alternatively, they may call (916) 653–3516 during office hours or visit/mail the office at the following address:

Mailing Address

Uniform Commercial Code

P.O. Box 942835

Sacramento, CA 94235–0001


Physical Address

1500 11th Street

Room 255

Sacramento, CA 95814

What is a Lien Title in California?

A lien title in California refers to a legal claim against a vehicle or car due to a loan. The lien remains on the vehicle's title until the associated loan—the loan used to purchase the car—is paid off. Where the borrower does not repay the debt or otherwise satisfy the loan's conditions, the lender can repossess the vehicle and sell it.

California Title Lien Search

Determining a car's lien status is one aspect of due diligence that prospective car owners should perform to ensure a car's title is clean. This helps them avoid difficulties from an unknown lien down the line, including the vehicle's repossession.

One way to check title liens on vehicles in California is to ask the auto lender or seller for the vehicle's title before the transaction occurs. However, a person can also purchase a vehicle's history report from vendors approved by the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). A VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) or license plate is usually needed to obtain a report.

  • Free Title Lien Search in California

Although the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) oversees the titling process, including title transfers and changes, for vehicles in California, the DMV does not offer any free (or paid) title lien search service. Consumers are left to order a vehicle history report from an approved NMVTIS provider to check for title liens, but that attracts costs that differ by the provider.

What is a Judgement Lien in California 

A judgement lien is a claim against someone's property that originates from a lawsuit. When parties file a lawsuit in a California court, one possible outcome is that the court will award monetary damages (or a money judgement) to the winning side (known as the judgement creditor).

If the judgement debtor (the losing party) fails to pay, the creditor can record an abstract of the judgement in any county where the debtor owns or has rights to property. The judegment lien attaches to all real estate the debtor owns in any county where the abstract is recorded.

However, suppose the judgement was entered against a business, and the business neglects to pay the owed sum. In that case, the judgement creditor can record a lien (Form JL 1) with the Secretary of State's office.

Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 695.010 - 697.920 governs the filing and execution of judgement liens in California. Whereas judgement liens against real estate in California have a 10-year deadline from the entry of judgement, such liens, when filed against personal property, have a 5-year deadline from the filing date. However, it is possible to renew a judgement lien before the statute of limitations expires.

California Judgement Lien Search

One way to find judgement liens in California is to query the local recorder's office in the county where a judgement debtor owns real estate. Recorder's offices offer free searches of records via public access terminals at their physical addresses and can provide requesters with copies of lien documents, including lien releases.

On the other hand, an individual can access the California Secretary of State's UCC Search portal to find judgement liens filed against personal property.

How to Get a Lien Release in California 

A lien release is an instrument that removes or discharges a lien from a property. The recommended method for obtaining a lien release in California is to resolve the underlying debt or duty (i.e., resolve the lien voluntarily).

Subsequently, the lienholder—the person, company, or agency that recorded the lien—will sign a Certificate or Notice of Release. The document must be filed in a county recorder's office, the Secretary of State's office, or other government office where the original lien was recorded.

Nonetheless, a lien release can also occur by court order. In this scenario, the lienee files a lawsuit in a local superior court to compel a lien's release. However, the court process is more complicated and time-consuming than simply paying off the debt. Moreover, it carries additional costs, including legal and filing fees, and the petitioner must prove that the lien is invalid to obtain a favorable ruling.

How to Get a Copy of a Lien Release in California

Members of the public who want to obtain a copy of a lien release letter in California can stop by a county recorder's office during regular business hours to submit an official request. Such county offices also allow official copy requests to be submitted by mail and, in some cases, by email, fax, or an online portal. However, a request must be made to the recorder's office in the county where a lien was recorded or released. Note that a copy fee applies.

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