There’s nothing like buying a home, moving in, making it your own and then learning that what you thought was your driveway is actually an access way for your neighbors. Easements allowing ingress, egress and other rights to your property from outsiders can be complex—and sometimes even unknown until after you buy the property.
Generally, easements allow others to use part of your property. In addition to providing access to or from other properties through yours, you may find a property has a conservation easement that limits future development or an easement that preserves a neighbor’s view, allows drainage through your property or even permits neighbors to pick apples from your trees.
While easements should be recorded on any property deeds relating to the property, sometimes easements have been in effect for such a long time that they may not even be known to the current property owner. Still, easements are legally binding and a failure to abide by them can result in fines and legal action.
So what’s a homebuyer to do? The best way to avoid and protect yourself from easement problems is to obtain owner’s title insurance for your property. As part of the insurance process, you’ll have experts searching back years—even decades—to identify any issues with the property, including easements. They’ll search county records, along with deed books, mortgage books and development plans in order to give you a full picture of any easements (and their expirations if applicable) or other issues with title to the property. This search itself provides some protection, and the insurance itself then gives you full protection should something be discovered later.
The American Bar Association describes title insurance as “a stockade fence around your property, protecting it from pirates who might creep out of the past.” In other words, title insurance protects you against losses from problems that arose before you bought the property. That means the title insurance company will defend you in court against any claims during that time and will pay for covered losses.
Easements don’t need to break a deal to buy your dream property. It’s just always best to go in with your eyes wide open to any limitations on your use or enjoyment. The good news is that if the property you want does have an easement and you can live by the terms, you may gain better leverage in sales negotiations.