An easement is a legal right to use someone else's land for a particular purpose. For example, the municipal water company may have an easement to run water pipes under your property. Your name is on the deed (you're the title holder and the property owner), but the water company has the right to use a part of your property for its pipes. Easements are sometimes in writing and referred to in property deeds or title papers prepared by a title insurance company or attorney.
Easements are part and parcel of the land they affect. They don't change when the property changes hands. Subsequent owners are obliged to let whoever owns the easement use the property, so anyone buying a house should be sure to find out exactly what easements a property is subject to before finalizing the purchase.
There are several types of easements, including utility easements, private easements, easements by necessity, and prescriptive easements (acquired by use of property).
The most common kind of easement is one that has been given in writing to a utility company or a city. Utility easements are sometimes described in a property deed or certificate of title as “those certain utility easements as set out and shown on the map and plat of record in such-and-such a book on page something-or-other.” The existence of these easements doesn't have much day-to-day effect. You can plant on the property, live on it, even build on it, as long as you don't interfere with the utility's use of the easement.
If you want to know where any utility easements are located on your property, call the utility company. Or you can go to the county land records office or city hall and ask a clerk to show you a map of the easement locations. A survey of the property will also show the location of utility easements.
In addition to utility easements, a property owner may sell an easement to someone else—for example, to use as a path or driveway or for sewer or solar access. Private sewer easements are often sold when an uphill house is being built, so the pipe from the house to the street can slant properly—sometimes right under your property.
If your title contains private easements, you should get copies of the actual easement documents. You need to know where the easements are and what uses they allow. If a solar access easement has been sold to a neighbor, for example, you may find that you are severely limited in what you can build or grow on your property, because you can't block sunlight to the neighbor's solar collectors. If you are unaware of the terms of a private easement, you could unknowingly interfere with the easement rights and be liable for damage.
Any private easement referred to in your property papers should have a reference number, such as a book and page number. Your county clerk can help you locate it in the public records and obtain a copy to keep with your deed.
Even if it isn't written down, a legal easement can exist if it's absolutely necessary to cross someone's land for a legitimate purpose. The law grants people a right of access to their homes, for example. So if the only access to a piece of land is by crossing through your property, the law recognizes an easement allowing access over your land. This is called an “easement by necessity.” When land is subject to such an easement, the landowner may not interfere with the neighbor's legal right.
Someone can acquire an easement over another's land for a particular purpose (such as accessing their own home) by using someone else's property openly and continuously for a set period of time. This is called a prescriptive easement, and typically one is created when someone uses land for access, such as a driveway or beach path or shortcut. The length of use required for a prescriptive easement varies from state to state and is often the same (10 or 20 years) as for adverse possession (which is when someone acquires legal ownership of land by occupying it).
While prescriptive easements and adverse possession may be the same (in terms of length of use required), there are important differences. For example, payment of property taxes is not necessary for a successful prescriptive easement claim, while some states require a trespasser to pay property taxes to obtain legal ownership. Also, to acquire a prescriptive easement, a trespasser does not need to be the only one using the land. More than one person can acquire a prescriptive easement in the same portion of land—an example would be a driveway on another's land or a path people use as a shortcut.
For details on adverse possession and your state rules, see Adverse Possession: When Trespassers Become Property Owners.
If you don't mind someone using part of your property but don't want him or her to gain the legal right to do so, the simplest way to prevent a prescriptive easement is to grant the person written permission to use the property. For example, if your neighbor is parking his car on a small strip of your property and you give him permission to do so, your neighbor is no longer a trespasser, and he can't claim an easement by prescription. Giving permission to a current user also prevents people who move in later from claiming that they inherited a prescriptive easement.
To find your state's law on prescriptive easements, look up “easements” in the index to your state statutes. To understand how the courts in your state have interpreted different requirements, you may also want to check your state's court decisions on prescriptive easements.
A property owner may not interfere with the purpose of a legal easement. If, for example, the electric company has wires strung across its right of way, you cannot take them down or block their path. If you interfere with an easement, you may end up being liable to the easement owner for damage and be subject to a court action ordering you to stop.
If you find yourself in a dispute over an easement or you feel someone is illegally trespassing on your property—for example you are a new homeowner who just discovered that your neighbor is using what you believe is a private drive for access to her own property—see an experienced local real estate attorney. The laws on easements vary from state to state and you will probably need tailor-made advice for your situation. It's especially important to consult with an experienced real estate attorney if there is nothing in writing (for example, in a deed or title papers) about the easement. The legal doctrines of unwritten easements that are created by people's actions and certain circumstances can be very complicated, and you'll want advice from someone experienced in your state's real estate law and up to date on relevant court decisions.
To learn more about easements, how to give written permission for an easement, and other issues involving your land, get Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise, by Emily Doskow and Lina Guillen (Nolo). If you suspect that someone is trespassing on your land and you want to consult with a lawyer, you can turn to Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory.