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 often granted to utility companies. But they can have many other purposes.

Before you purchase a property, you should find out whether there are any easements in place. Learn more about them and how they work.

What Is an Easement?

You may not like the idea of letting someone trespass on your land. But the truth is that most properties have easements of some kind. They can be used for roads; or, they might be given to utility companies for the right to bury cables or access lines.

Landlocked homeowners might pay for easements to cross their neighbor's land to leave or reach their homes. These payments can be made once, yearly, or on an agreed-upon schedule. Easements can also expire after a certain length of time.

Land containing an easement can also be referred to as a "servient estate." When you are looking to buy a property, look for easements in the public records. This is even more crucial if you plan to put in a swimming pool or build any freestanding structures. A property owner can't build on top of an easement.

How Do Easements Work?

Easements can go into effect in multiple ways. The exact rules vary by state and municipality. Utility easements, for instance, may be written into the property deeds.

Some are simply implied by necessity; for instance, if your neighbor cannot access their home without passing through your land. In some cases, a person can obtain an easement by "adverse possession." This means they simply use another's property for a certain length of time. Others must be granted in writing.

Important

Easements most often run with the land. They convey right along with it when it sells or is transferred to a new owner. This can vary; it depends on the type of easement and the specifics of the agreement. Many easements are assumed to be permanent.

What Are the 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 worker to trespass on your land to reach an electrical pole if you have one in your yard. This type of access easement would most likely not be defined.

You should know where underground utilities are located. This is especially true 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 places and the utility division will send out a city worker. They can stake your land with flags, showing 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 land. These types 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. It could prevent you from planting a group of trees that would block a homeowner's TV signal or even a view that adds to the value of the home.

Tip

One of the best options is to offer to pay your neighbor for an easement if you need one on their land. Just make sure to record the details.

Easements by Prescription

Easements by prescription are obtained by "hostile, open, and notorious" use. This type of easement can be claimed by a person who often travels across a parcel of land owned by another; it's done without the owner's consent. Think of it as a version of squatter's rights.

These are most often found in more rural settings; it's not very common in urban environments.

Prescriptive Easements vs. Adverse Possession

While it's similar to gaining a prescriptive easement, adverse possession is a bit different. Both require continuous, notorious use for a period of up to 20 years; the length of time could be even more in some states. The use of the land is common knowledge, and it's flagrant.

With adverse possession, the user has effectively claimed ownership. A prescriptive easement is more a matter of sharing the land in question, rather than taking it over entirely.

Note

Consult a lawyer if you're hoping to obtain land via adverse possession. You may have to pay any past-due property taxes associated with it. Other legal caveats exist as well; these vary by state.

What Are the Implications of Easements?

Homebuyers don't always read a title insurance preliminary report or title commitment when they're buying a property. 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 five 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. This means you might have to get your hands on the assessor's map or plat map to find out exactly where they're at. 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 the right to trespass on part of someone else's property for a specific purpose.
  • They are often granted to utility companies; they 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.