What Is an Easement?

Definition & Examples of Easements

Utility worker on a telephone pole

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Easements give another person or entity a right to effectively trespass upon or use land that's owned by someone else. They are commonly granted to utility companies but have several other purposes.

Before you purchase a property, it's important to know whether there are any easements in place. Learn more about what easements are and how they work.

What Is an Easement?

Although you might bristle at the idea of letting someone else trespass on your land, most properties have easements of some kind. They can be used for roads or given to utility companies for the right to bury cables or access utility lines. Landlocked homeowners sometimes pay for easements to cross someone else's land to reach their homes or other destinations. These payments can be made once, annually, or on an agreed-upon schedule. Easements can also expire after a certain time period.

Land containing an easement is sometimes referred to as a "servient estate." When you are looking to purchase a property, look for easements in the public records, especially if you plan to put in a swimming pool or erect an additional structure. A property owner can't build on top of an easement.

How Do Easements Work?

Easements can go into effect in various ways, and the exact rules vary by state and municipality. Utility easements, for instance, may be written into the property deeds. Some easements are simply implied by necessity—if your neighbor cannot access their property without passing through yours, for example. Sometimes, a person can obtain an easement by "adverse possession," simply by using another's property for a certain period of time. Others must be expressly granted in writing.

Easements generally run with the land—they convey right along with it when it sells or is otherwise transferred to a new owner. This can vary depending on the type of easement and the specifics of the agreement, but many easements are assumed to be permanent.

Types of Easements

The most common type of easement found in residential neighborhoods is for public utilities. You might have an easement that allows a city electrical worker to trespass on your property to reach an electrical pole if you have one in your backyard. This type of access easement would most likely not be specifically defined.

You should know where underground utilities are located, especially if you plan to excavate any portion of your land. Not every sewer line runs through the street; it's common to find a sewer line or cesspool in a backyard in older cities. You can call a city hotline in some municipalities and the utility division will send out a city worker to stake your property with flags, depicting the types of utilities that are underground.

Appurtenance Easements

Other types of easements might involve a shared driveway or path that could be the only access point from the road to a home behind your property. These types of easements are often permanent and transfer with sale of the property (they're also called appurtenance easements).

Negative Easements

A negative easement prevents something from occurring, such as planting a copse of trees that would block a homeowner's television satellite signal or even a view that contributes to the value of the property.

It's usually easiest to offer to pay your neighbor for an easement if you need to acquire one on their land. Just make sure to record it.

Easements by Prescription

Easements by prescription are acquired by "hostile, open, and notorious use." Prescriptive easements can be claimed by a person who continuously travels across a parcel of land owned by another without the owner's permission or consent. Think of it as a version of squatter's rights.

Prescriptive easements are generally found in more rural settings, not in an urban environment.

Prescriptive Easements vs. Adverse Possession

Although it's similar to gaining a prescriptive easement, adverse possession involves continuous notorious use for a period of up to 20 years—even more in some states. The use is common knowledge and it's flagrant. The user has effectively claimed exclusive ownership of the property.

A prescriptive easement is more a matter of sharing the land in question rather than taking it over entirely.

Consult a lawyer if you're hoping to acquire property via adverse possession because you might have to pay any past due property taxes associated with it. Several other legal caveats exist as well, and these vary by state.

The Implications of Easements

Homebuyers don't always read a title insurance preliminary report or title commitment when they're buying a property, but both of these documents should include the location of any easements.

A sample easement description might say that it "covers the easterly 5 feet." This would mean that you can't build a fence or install any type of permanent structure—or even a swimming pool—in an area that runs for 5 feet along the east side of your property line.

Some easements are only referenced in the title paperwork. They're not drawn out on a map, so you might have to get your hands on the assessor's map or plat map to determine exactly where they're located. You can also ask for the description of the easement in the legal document that's recorded by book and page in public records.

Key Takeaways

  • An easement gives someone a right to trespass on part of someone else's property for a specific purpose.
  • They are commonly granted to utility companies, but may also be given for other reasons, such as when a neighbor has to cross another property to reach their own.
  • The rules for easements vary by the state, municipality, and the type of use involved.