An Introduction to Easements

An easement is defined as the right to use, cross or access another’s piece of land without assuming ownership. Although sometimes they may significantly affect the value of the land, in many cases easements are simply a fact of life, and there are many types of easements that you may not even be aware of, even though you live with them every day.

The right to use the land, when conferred by an easement rather than outright ownership, is limited to a particular purpose or type of use. It is considered an interest in the land, but it does not allow the owner of the easement to do anything they like with the property. The land itself cannot be occupied, but it can be used only for the purposes detailed in the easement itself.

A great example of an easement is when a land owner whose land is not bordered by any roads must cross another’s land to reach the road (also known as a right of way easement. Easements are also commonly granted to utility companies (utility easements) to run various lines across the land. Some may affect where you can place fences or other structures on your property. A preservation easement, for historic districts, may restrict what types of changes you may make to the historic building, such as structural additions or even paint colors. Others, called recreation easements, allow the public to use undeveloped land for biking, hiking, hunting, fishing, or other recreational uses. In some states, land owners can receive tax incentives for these easements.

Two Types of Easements

While easements serve a wide range of purposes, from a legal standpoint they all tend to fall into one of two categories: an easement appurtenant or an easement in gross. An easement appurtenant goes with the land, and if the land is sold, the easement continues with the new owner. Similarly, if the land served by the easement is sold, the new owner of that parcel will also gain the easement. The owner of an easement appurtenant must own a parcel of land that is affected by having the easement, which is usually a piece of property adjacent to or near the one to which the easement applies.

The other type of easement, an easement in gross, is a right that belongs to a particular person or entity regardless of location, and is not specifically attached to a piece of property. This type of easement can be granted to an entity who does not own an adjacent piece of land but may need access to multiple parcels of property for their purposes—for example, utility companies, communications companies, billboard companies, etc.

If you are buying a piece of land, a land survey can let you know if there are any easements associated with the property. You may also wish to have a land survey completed if someone is asking for an easement on land that you own, so that you can be sure exactly what the easement entails. Existing easements can also be found through a title survey.
It’s important to find out about easements before you buy land because they can affect the value of your property. An easement may be inconvenient, but in most cases you should not abandon a possible land purchase simply because there is an easement. Before agreeing to purchase a property with easements, consider whether it will affect your use of the property or future resale values.