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Get Off My Lawn: What You Need to Know About Easements

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So you’re in escrow, eyeballing that empty corner of your yard for a little granny flat or workshop, but then BAM — the title check comes back with a big ol’ slash across your property marked EASEMENT. Oh no, right?

Don’t panic — an “easement” can mean a few different things, and though most of them restrict building, digging, or planting, some easements aren’t necessarily written in stone. Let’s skip the legal gobbledygook and take a brief look at what you’re up against, and how to minimize the impact of easements on enjoyment of your property.

What IS an Easement?

Simply put, an easement allows someone else to access or control a designated part of your property. You still own the place but, whether by agreement or decree, there’s a piece of your land that must be accessible to an individual, group, or even the whole dang world. But which is which, and what do they mean to you?

Popular Easements (and sometimes unpopular, too)

Utility Easement — By far the most common type, this easement allows access for utility companies to service and maintain their equipment. Water, sewer, gas, power, phone, and so on — your community is served by a network of above- and below-ground utilities, which rarely run neatly along streets and other public accessways. Underground utilities in particular follow the shortest distance between two points which, for the sake of this article, happens to be through your yard. These pipes and so forth need to be accessible, so no sneaky hiding them underneath your new hot tub. They also probably can’t be moved. PRO TIP: Don’t test this hypothesis by shoving a backhoe through the gas main — this can only end in tears. Before you dig, dial 811 to find out where your utilities are hiding.

Right of Way — This allows others to cross your property to access another place. An example of a private right of way is the driveway that crosses your back forty so the landlocked neighbor can get their kids to soccer. Private right of way does not grant any rights to the general public, but does allow your neighbors to grant access to their guests. A public right of way is that path the city put in by your begonias so a bunch of strangers can visit your oceanfront view. This can also include things like roads, sidewalks, greenbelts, and other means of public travel.

There are many more examples of easements and how easements work, but these are by far the ones most likely to affect your plans as a homeowner.

Care & Feeding of Easements

Don’t mess with easements, man. It might be tempting to assert your status as emperor of your realm by obstructing access or building over an easement anyway, but guess what — that’s considered trespassing. On your own property, even. Who’d a thunk? Consult a lawyer if you don’t believe us, but you’re not going to like the answer. Your best strategy is to get cozy with those easements and work with them, not against them.

The best time to get to know your easements is before they’re actually yours. Say you only want a home where you can put in a sweet bunker (or pool, or rehearsal studio, or new garage, and so on): it can’t hurt to inquire about easements through your agent before you even make an offer. The seller probably has the title information in their paperwork, and should be willing to make it available for a potential buyer. If you’ve already made the offer, you’ll get to see the easements once you’re in escrow, whether in the seller’s disclosures or when you order a new title report.

This Land Is My Land, This Land Is My Land

Most existent easements probably can’t be changed. But if you spot a vestigial right of way — say, an old driveway easement for a neighbor who now uses another neighbor’s driveway — it may be possible to get it remedied. Likewise, if the easement rightholder is placing an unreasonable burden on your property, a court may restrict or remove those rights, returning that property to your full control.

In the event you purchase land and later subdivide it, be careful to account for the needs of both parcels. Historical use or necessity may dictate the need for a new easement, and failure to plan for one can seriously affect your property values.

Of course, if there’s any question about your rights and responsibilities, ask your REALTOR® to help you find the best solutions. The Wolf Team is standing by to field these and other questions — contact us anytime!

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