What are easements in real estate?

Published by Kartik Subramaniam

Reading Time : 4 minutes


If you are enrolled in our California real estate school , no doubt you would have seen the term “easement” pop up in your studies.

Simply put, easements in real estate are the right of one party to travel over the land of another for access.

What is an example of an easement?

Consider the case where there are two properties adjacent to one another- a front house and a back house. Assume that the only way the owner of the back house can get to their property is by crossing over the front property. The right of the back house to travel over the front house is known as an easement.

Dirt Road

Who are the parties in an easement?

Since the back house has the legal right to travel over the front house for access, the owner of the back house is known as the “dominant” tenement. Because the front house is burdened by the easement they are known as the “servient” tenement.

While the simple example of a front house and a back house is the most common type of easement, there are others as well. For example, an electric company might have the right to string wires over a subdivision or a water utility might have the right to lay underground water pipe through an area. These are also types of easements, but they are known as easements in gross.

So how do you know if you have an easement?

Easements in real estate are almost always recorded with local authorities such as county or city clerks' offices. A title search would reveal easements that cross the property, and would appear in a preliminary title report obtained through a title insurance company.

So how does an easement differ from a license?

If you are taking our real estate crash course you have seen a discussion around the differences between an easement and a license. A license is a personal right to cross over the land of another held by an individual or entity. Licenses are not associated with the land itself, rather they correspond to an individual. An easement, on the other hand, is an appurtenant right. That is, easements are associated with the real property itself and run with the land. As such, easements are transferred to the new owner upon the sale of the property.

Example of a license:

I give Betty the right to travel over my land. I specify that this right is exclusive to Betty and it is able to be taken away from Betty.

Analysis:

This is a license because the right to traverse my property is exclusive to Betty and it not tied to the land. Finally, the right to travel over my land is able to be taken away from Betty hence it is a license not an easement.

To reiterate, remember that an easement differs from a license based on the revocability of a license. In other words, an easement that is recorded in the county recorder’s office generally can’t be revoked by the servient tenement.

A few ways that easements can be terminated, however, are:

  • Release of the easement by quitclaim deed signed by the dominant tenement.
  • Merger of both the dominant and servient tenements.
  • Restruction of the servient tenement.
  • Abandonment of a prescriptive easement for at least 5 years.

But notice in an easement, the servient tenement cannot unilaterally terminate the easement like the grantor could do with a license.

In summary, remember that an easement is the right to cross over another’s land for access. This simple definition should help you on the real estate exam .

Love,

Kartik

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