An “easement” is a legal right of someone who doesn’t own a piece of property to use the property for a particular reason. Many properties have easements on them, so it’s important to know about them if you’re considering buying real estate.
An easement permits a third party (such as a neighbor) to use part or all of a property for a specific purpose. For instance, someone may have a right to walk or drive over part of the property to access their home, or to go hunting or fishing there.
The most common type of easement is a utility easement, which says that a utility company can access part of a property to maintain its services. This is generally no big deal – but if a utility truck shows up on your land one day and begins excavating a lot of dirt to upgrade a gas line, it can be very disruptive.
Another type of easement is a right of way – someone else’s right to use your property to get somewhere. This is common where two properties share a common driveway, for instance; one property owner might hold title to the driveway, but the other has a legal right to use it.
Sometimes a city will buy an easement from a landowner so the public can use part of the land to access a public park or beach.
Some types of easements are a permanent part of the property. For instance, if Ellen has a legal right to use a common driveway owned by Joan, and Joan sells her property, the new owner might still have to allow Ellen to use the driveway.
Other types of easements are specific to a person and aren’t part of the property. For instance, if Joe gives his neighbor Bob permission to go fishing on his land, and Bob later moves away and sells his home, the new owner wouldn’t necessarily acquire the right to fish in Joe’s stream.
Generally, an easement disappears if the purpose for which it was created no longer exists. This was the subject of a recent case in the U.S. Supreme Court, involving an easement over private land granted to the U.S. government back in the 19th century for a railroad track in Wyoming. When the railroad ceased operations a few years ago, the government wanted to repurpose the land as a bike trail. But a private landowner objected. The Supreme Court sided with the landowner, saying that the easement was created solely for the purpose of a railroad track – and once the railroad ceased to exist, so did the government’s easement.