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If I had him sign a promissory note now (it's been over 3 years) -- will I be able to put a lein on the property?
No, the promissory note would just mean that he agrees to repay you $XXXX. It would have to accompany a mortgage or deed of trust in order to create a lien on the property.
And for what it is worth, if there was nothing in writing about repaying the loan, then the statute of limitations on enforcing it is only 2 years in CA. See CA Civil Code 339