An 83-year-old man from Alton, N.S., was shocked to discover that his cottage on East Loon Lake had been sold without his knowledge last February. The cottage was eventually returned to him by the new owners after a municipal misunderstanding about taxes.
Nelson Miller bought two parcels of land on East Loon Lake in 1979—one plot of land on the roadside and the second on the waterfront. He built a cottage on the roadside portion of the property, which is a little less than an acre, and he and his family enjoyed their small camp for many decades.
However, Nelson forgot to register the original deed for the cottage. “But I paid every tax bill before the deadline for 43 years,” says Nelson, and he paid for both parcels of land under the same account to the municipality of St. Mary’s. Then, in 2015, the township started to collect taxes on the roadside portion of the property under a new account. Not knowing Nelson had purchased the land from a previous owner, the town sent taxes to a long-outdated PO box. Overdue bills started to pile up, and the cottage was eventually sold in a tax sale to Luke and Christina Collings of Boylston in June 2021.
St. Mary’s failed to migrate over old land registry files into the province’s new, post-2005 digital system, something the Collingses believe was the source of this ordeal. Although this would not have solved the problem of the missing deed, the error might have been spotted since there was an established record of Nelson paying taxes.
When Luke and Christina first drove out for a visit, they found a cottage on the property. The tax sale had advertised it as “vacant land,” but the sale went through after a six-month holdover period without the owner coming forward. When the Collingses finally accessed the cottage, they found personal belongings, functional utilities, and recent mail.
“We knew something was wrong when we visited the cottage for a second time, and things had moved,” says Luke. “The outside looked a bit rundown, but inside, there were signs of life,” says Christina.
Tax sales are high-risk, high-reward ways of buying foreclosed real estate for cheaper than market value. But they don’t give much information to prospective buyers about what they might be purchasing. Often no photos or addresses of the property are released, and it is the responsibility of buyers to do their own research. Although tax sales can be a great way for first-time cottagers to break into the market, they come with a lot of risks, such as inherited liens, hidden fees, and apparently, someone already living there.
When an electricity bill arrived to Nelson in February 2022—during the winter when he rarely used the cottage—he called Nova Scotia Light and Power. He was informed that the new owners were asking him to pay for remaining utilities and that his cottage had been sold in a tax sale. Miller got the Collingses contact information from the utility company and immediately reached out.
“When Neslon called us, he was bewildered, and rightfully so,” says Luke. But despite the confusion, the Collingses wanted to return the cottage. “We had no doubts in our mind that it was the right thing to do.”
Nelson still had his original deed, so he, the Collingses, and the municipality of St. Mary’s hired lawyers and reached a legal settlement in May 2022 to return the cottage to him. The town refunded the Collingses the $29,000 they paid in the tax sale, plus legal expenses and interest, and the Collingses agreed to give up the property. Nelson signed a new deed (which he promptly registered) and agreed to pay back taxes up until 2015, which totalled over $2,200 with fees and interest.
The Collingses feel that the township of St. Mary’s could have done more to prevent this from happening and that they should change their tax sale practices in the future.
Nelson agrees. “They didn’t notify me or make an effort to at all,” he says. “If they had posted something, that would have ended it right there.” Although Nelson is still not satisfied, he remains grateful for what the Collingses did, and now he’s happy to focus on passing down the cottage to his children and their families to enjoy. “There’s over 40 years of memories up there,” he says. “I’m just happy there will be more.”
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