Even if you don't think so, you might have an easement on your property. Easements usually lie there quietly, not affecting you for years or decades. Then, when you decide to bump out your house, put on an addition, dig a pool, or erect a fence, you find out that you have a legal easement running through your property. Can you build on the most common type of easement, a utility easement? If so, to what extent can you build and will you ever be forced to tear down any of the items that you have built?
What Is a Property Easement?
Easements are legal designations that allow individuals or entities to use portions of your property (to build on or for physical access), even though you still own the land and technically have a right to build on it. The person or entity who is allowed to do this is called the dominant estate; you are the servient estate.
Property easements come in many shapes and forms. There are utility easements that allow sewer and gas lines. There are driveway easements that allow access to your property in the form of a short road or driveway. There are sidewalk easements that allow the public to walk in front of your property, as long as they stay on the sidewalk.
These easements (and others) are part of this strange world where the public, government agencies, and utility companies have access to your property, yet you still own the property. It can often feel like a hazy world no one quite owns anything outright. For instance, if you truly do own your house and land in full, how can someone lay claim to your property in perpetuity? Therein lays the core issue. You do own your property. But due to a greater public good—much like eminent domain actions—you are required to give over part of your land in service of that good.
How to Find out If You Have an Easement
Most homeowners should already know that their property contains an easement as it is right there in the title documents when you buy the house. If you cannot find your title documents, check your county website's tax assessor section. Likely you can find documents relating to your property, including easements.
Property Easements That May Affect You
The world abounds with easements, but only certain types may affect a homeowner who wants to build or remodel. Some types of easements:
Utility Easements (Below Ground)
Storm drains, sanitary sewer mains, or natural gas lines frequently run through and under private property.
Utility Easements (Above Ground)
Electrical power lines or telephone lines also run over private property.
Sidewalk easements are the most common type of easement, the type which countless homeowners have on their property. Even if a sidewalk isn't physically in place, you may still have a sidewalk easement in place on paper.
A typical scenario: you have a deep lot that you subdivide into two (front and back). You build your own house on the front lot and sell the back lot. The buyer builds a house on the backlot. To gain access to that backlot, the buyer should have a driveway easement.
Deadend or Beach Easements
These easements usually run along the side border of a property and allow the public access to an area beyond your property, such as a beach, park, or simply as a shortcut.
A conservation easement may be a greenbelt or park running alongside your property.
View easements are less common, but becoming more common as communities become aware of the monetary value of sightlines. A view easement might give your neighbor the right to enjoy a view of the coastline without you blocking the view by building your house up, planting trees, or adding other obstructions. Your house's warranty deed should have an attachment that spells out the conditions of the easement. The documents received back from the title company will have your warranty deed and attachments.
Can You Build on an Easement?
Yes, you can build on a property easement, even a utility easement. Yet if you value peace of mind over everything else, not building on that easement is the best way to go. The dominant estate owning the easement may need to access the easement. Anything, from a house addition down to fences, shrubs, and children's playsets might need to be removed in this event.
Building Fences on Easements
Fences regularly get built along or across easements. Homeowners who do this must expect the chance that their fence might be pulled down by a dominant estate (utility company, for example). A few utility companies state that, as a courtesy, they will do their best to reconstruct the fence.
Building Hot Tubs and Pools on Easements
Above-ground hot tubs and pools are also subject to removal. In-ground pools are more problematic, not only because they cannot easily be removed but because they may interfere with in-ground easements. It would not be wise to put an above-ground hot tub or pool on an easement.
Planting Shrubs and Grass on Easements
Bushes, lawn, and other shallow-rooted shrubberies may be planted on easements. Trees and other major vegetation should not be planted on easements. One common scenario: you have an above-ground garden planted on an easement, covering the manhole to the sewer main. Workers regularly access this manhole, working around the plantings. Shrubs are removed only in key areas.
Servient Estate. Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.
A Legal Introduction to Easements. California Land Title Association.
Easements in California. Lorman Education Services.
Purcell, Lindsey. Trees and Electric Lines. Purdue University Extension Forestry and Natural Resources, 2015.