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Understanding property easements (before you buy)

If you're looking at a piece of property with an easement, you need to understand exactly what that means before you decide to buy.

While there are a number of types of easements, most allow you to use another person's property in a very limited fashion -- as long as you do so in the expected manner without unduly disturbing that person and without laying claim to it.

Consider a common example. Imagine that you are considering the purchase of a home that's part way up a hillside. You realize that the only way to access the main road from your house requires you to drive through your neighbor's property on a small access road. The realtor explains that the house has an easement that allows this because there's no reasonable alternative.

While this kind of necessity would likely grant you an easement, there are limits on what you could do. For example, you wouldn't be allowed to expand the access road to suit your preference for a wider road because that would be akin to assuming ownership and abusing the privilege of the easement.

Easements aren't always this easy, however -- nor this straightforward. Before you purchase, it's wise to find out if the easement is express or implied. An express easement is written down or documented in some way. An implied easement is merely understood, either because it is the only thing that makes sense or through a long-standing custom or routine.

It's also important to understand that easements can, unfortunately, lead to conflicts. If, for example, you have several large vehicles and a small boat that you use, your neighbor may feel that their rumbling up and down his road is too much -- and you could find yourself in a lawsuit. Conflicts of interest and personality can sometimes lead to serious problems where easements are concerned.

None of this means that you shouldn't buy a property with an easement -- it just means that you need to be wise and go into the deal with a clear understanding of what you are doing.

Source: FindLaw, "Easement Basics," accessed June 07, 2018

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