If you’re gearing up to buy a piece of property or own land you’re considering developing or building a home on, you may come across the term “easement.”

Understanding what easements are and how they can affect you will help you decide whether to go through with purchasing or developing a property.

What is an easement?

An easement is a legal right for a person, government, or company to use your real estate for a certain purpose. The purpose is dependent on the type of easement in place. 

Why are easements created?

Easements are created to provide legal access to land. For example, if a parcel of land is isolated by adjacent private properties, an easement indicates that the owner of that parcel has the legal right to enter or leave it, even if it requires going through someone else's property. The same is true for utility companies that require access to infrastructure for installation and upkeep.

A utility company may have an easement that allows them to go onto a property to ensure the electric meter is working or that the power lines are functioning. A neighboring landowner may have an easement that provides them with access to a well on your property.

An easement does not give its holder ownership or possession of your property in any way. Rather, it gives the individual, government, or company that holds the easement access to your land if and when necessary.

What are common types of easements?

There are several types of easements, including private easements, utility easements, easements by necessity, and prescriptive easements.

Private easement: A private easement refers to when a property owner sells an easement to someone else, granting them the legal right to access and/or use specific parts of the property. For example, if a home is being built uphill from your property and needs to install a pipe under your property for sewer purposes, you can grant a private easement. A private easement may affect subsequent owners. 

Utility easement: The most common type of easement, a utility easement, is given in writing to a utility company, city, or municipality. It gives them access to private property in order to access infrastructure without permission from the landowner.

Easement by necessity: As the name suggests, an easement by necessity refers to when the law grants an individual the right to access someone’s land if it’s absolutely necessary to do so for legitimate reasons. For example, if the only way an individual can access their home is by walking across your property, they are granted an easement allowing access to your land. You can’t interfere, as it’s the individual's legal right.

Prescriptive easement: A prescriptive easement refers to when someone who is not the landowner acquires permission to use the land for a particular purpose because they have been doing so openly and continuously for a set amount of time. For example, if your neighbor has regularly used your driveway over a period of years to access the main road because they don’t have their own driveway, a prescriptive easement may be granted. The length of time required to warrant a prescriptive easement differs from state to state but is usually 10 or 20 years. Prescriptive easements on the same portion of land are not limited to one person, and the trespasser(s) is not required to pay property taxes to successfully gain a prescriptive easement.

How does an easement impact my rights as a property owner?

It’s important to know whether any easements exist before purchasing a property. A seller should reveal any known easements in disclosure documents prior to the sale, but it’s a good idea to do your own research as well. The county land records office or city hall should have maps and/or records of easements, and a property survey should also indicate any easements in place.

If you do discover easements on your property, their impact will depend on the type. For instance, an easement by necessity could mean you don’t have the privacy you’d hoped for, as your neighbor needs access to your land. A historic easement might mean you can’t modify your home or land in the way you’d wanted to. A private easement granted by a previous owner is likely to still be in effect, even under new ownership.

Can easements be challenged or removed?

Easements can be tough or impossible to remove because they’re typically permanent (unless both have parties agreed that it will expire when specific circumstances arise or a certain date is reached.) Alternatively, you can go to court to challenge an easement.

It’s critical to look into easements and to fully understand any that are in place on your property or a property you’re looking to purchase.

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