What Is an Easement in Real Estate? A Guide for Homebuyers

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Easement dispute, easement decision, easement access — these phrases are heard more often in the news than in our homes. But if the word easement comes up in a title search when buying or selling a house, questions can arise. What is an easement in real estate? Will an easement impact your home sale or purchase?

In this post, we’ll guide you through the ins and outs of easements, helping you grasp how they work, the different types you may encounter, and the implications for property owners.

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What is an easement?

A property easement grants a person, organization, or government the limited right to use your land for a specific purpose. It does not grant ownership but rather land-use permissions and possibly restrictions.

For example, an easement can give a utility company the right to place cables in your backyard. Another may require you to share a driveway with a neighbor or keep a walkway clear for schoolchildren crossing your land.

Some easements can even prevent you from building a structure that blocks the sun from reaching nearby solar panels or spoils a protected scenic view.

Easements are common in real estate and can affect future use or alterations you might consider as a homeowner.

Time and maintenance: Easements can be temporary or permanent and are typically binding on both current and future property owners. Responsibilities for maintaining the easement area can vary, often depending on the agreement or local laws.

Should I avoid buying property with an easement?

Deciding whether to buy a property with an easement depends largely on your specific needs and future plans for the property. While easements are a common part of many real estate transactions and can be managed, they can create certain conditions and limitations that you need to consider.

Here’s how an easement might affect your property:

  • Public access: If the easement allows public access, such as a pathway across your land, it could lead to privacy concerns and increased foot traffic or noise.
  • Access to your home: An easement might mean shared or limited access to parts of your property, which could influence how you and others reach your home.
  • Home and property improvements: Depending on the easement type, there could be restrictions on building extensions, pools, or other structures if they might obstruct the easement area.
  • Land use restrictions: Some easements limit the type of activities you can do on certain parts of your land, potentially affecting plans for gardens, outbuildings, or other uses.
  • Neighbor relationships: Easements that involve neighbors, like shared driveways or walkways, require good communication and cooperation, which can sometimes be challenging.
  • Maintenance of the easement: You may be responsible for maintaining the easement area, which could involve additional costs or effort, especially if it’s for utilities or roadways.
  • Resale potential: The presence of an easement can sometimes impact the resale value of your property, as potential buyers might view it as a limitation.

Pause before you purchase: For more complex or far-reaching easements, you may want to consult with a real estate professional or a lawyer. Be certain you fully understand how existing easements could impact your property rights and determine if the property still meets your needs.

Common types of easements

Here’s a breakdown of common easements you might encounter, along with examples to illustrate each type.

Utility easement

A utility easement is a type of easement granted to utility companies to install and maintain utility lines, whether underground or overhead. The scope of impact on your property is typically limited by guidelines spelled out in the easement agreement. However, you may find that the easement restricts where you can plant trees or build anything that might interfere with utility cables or pipes.

Utility easement example: If a power company has a utility easement on your property, they may have the right to use a portion of your backyard to run electrical lines.

Private easement

A private easement allows one individual to use another’s property for a specific private purpose. Property owners can create an easement and give (or sell) it to another person or entity, which can create challenges for the next homeowner.

Private easement example: Your neighbor might have a private easement to use your driveway to reach their garage, which is otherwise inaccessible from their own property.

Easement by necessity

This easement occurs when a property must access resources that are only available through another’s land. It is typically established by government action when a property is divided.

Easement by necessity example: If your neighbor’s home is landlocked and the only access to an entry road is through your property, an easement by necessity may be granted to allow them passage.

Easement appurtenant

In real estate, appurtenance is a legal term that refers to rights or restrictions that run with the land or a permanent condition attached to a property. In other words, this easement will remain in place once you purchase the property.

Easement appurtenant example: If your property includes a path that leads to a public beach, the easement appurtenant will allow your neighbor or the public to use this path.

Easement by prescription

An easement by prescription can be claimed after someone has used the land openly, without formal permission and continuously for a period defined by state law.

Easement by prescription example: If someone has used a specific path across your land openly and without your permission for many years, and you never complained or asked them to stop, they may be entitled to continue using that path under a prescriptive easement.

Easement in gross

This is an easement that benefits a person or entity, rather than a piece of land. It is not transferable unless explicitly agreed upon. Unlike easement by prescription, an easement in gross openly grants permission to a person or company to use or access your land.

Easement in gross example: A cable company may hold an easement in gross to maintain cable lines over several properties,. Or you might give your neighbor permission to ice skate on a pond on your land or access a lake from your property.

Less common easements you may encounter

While some easements, like utility or private access, are widely understood, there are several less common types that can also impact property ownership. Here are a few you might come across:

Research easement

Allows educational institutions or organizations to conduct research on your land.

Research easement example: A university could have a research easement to study natural ecosystems on a portion of your property.

Conservation easement

This easement restricts developmental and other activities on a piece of land to preserve its environmental qualities.

Conservation easement example: A land trust might hold a conservation easement on your property to protect wildlife habitats, limiting your ability to build new structures.

Drainage easement

Allows for the installation and upkeep of stormwater systems and ensures proper drainage across properties.

Drainage easement example: Your property may include a drainage easement along its border to allow for water runoff that prevents flooding.

Scenic easement

Protects land from being developed in a way that could block views of landscapes or landmarks.

Scenic easement example: A scenic easement may prevent you from building a tall fence that blocks the view of a nearby mountain range.

Finding easements? Before you buy a house, a title search will typically identify any easements attached to the property. You can also research property easements by contacting your county land records office, city hall, or area utility or survey companies. Title insurance can protect you against any undisclosed easements that may surface after closing your sale.

How do I create an easement?

Creating an easement involves a few key steps:

  • Identify the need: Determine why the easement is necessary and what specific rights it will grant.
  • Consult professionals: Work with a real estate attorney to ensure the easement is legally sound.
  • Draft the easement agreement: Include details about the location of the easement, the rights and responsibilities of all parties, and any terms regarding its duration and maintenance.
  • Formalize the agreement: The easement must be written and then signed by all affected parties.
  • Record the easement: File the signed agreement with the appropriate local government office to make it official and enforceable.

Can I remove or end an easement?

Removing or terminating an easement can be challenging but is possible under certain conditions:

  • Mutual agreement: If both the easement holder and the property owner agree, the easement can be officially terminated. This would typically require the easement holder to submit a release of easement request.
  • Expiration of the easement: Some easements have built-in termination dates or are based on a specific condition that may no longer exist or apply. So, it could be that an easement you’re hoping to remove has already expired or become invalid.
  • Abandoned easement: If an easement holder fails to use the easement for a long period of time, such as an old road through your property that is now overgrown and hasn’t been accessed in a decade, you may be able to show that it’s been abandoned and request that it be ended.
  • Merger of properties: If the easement holder acquires the property, the easement typically ends.
  • Negotiate modifications: It may be easier to work with the easement holder to agree on changes that could restrict or alter its use.
  • Legal action: In cases where the terms of the easement are breached, a court might terminate it.

Research easements before you buy

Understanding the type, scope, and implications of an easement can help you make a more informed decision and plan for any potential impacts on your property use and enjoyment.

If you’re unsure where to start or need expert guidance navigating property easements, consider reaching out to a professional. HomeLight can help connect you with the most knowledgeable real estate agents in your market who understand local property laws and can provide the insight you need.

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