A utility easement gives utility companies a legal right to access private property to provide essential services to the community. It’s important for current and future property owners to understand their and utility companies’ rights, responsibilities, and restrictions, as well as the easement regulations in their state.
Whether you are a current owner or you are considering purchasing a home or a plot of land in the future, it’s important to know if and where there is an access easement on your property. An easement is a designated piece of land that others are legally allowed to access or use for a specific purpose. There are multiple kinds of property easements, with utility easements being one of the most common. These allow utility companies to freely access, control, and maintain utility poles, power lines, fiber optic and telephone lines, gas lines, water and sewer lines, and other utility lines above ground or underground to ensure that you and your community can benefit from these services.
Knowing what easements already exist within your property line, who the easement holder is, and what your rights and responsibilities are regarding access and routine maintenance will help you avoid issues down the road. In this article, we’ll go over the basics of utility easements, including whether or not a utility easement affects your right to refuse access to your property, whether you are responsible for an easement, whether it will have a significant impact on your freedom to make changes to your property, and if it will negatively affect your property value.
Common types of property easements
There are a few basics regarding property easements that all property owners should be aware of, including the common types of easement that can affect the use of a property, how easement size and duration vary by state and circumstances, and how to find out if a property has any easements on it. The following are some of the most common types of property easements:
- Appurtenant easement: An appurtenant easement is used as a permanent pass through private property to access a utility or public space. For example, if two properties share a space (one being the dominant property and the other being the servient property) and the dominant estate does not have its own access to a public road, the property owner would need an easement to make use of land within the servient estate.
- Driveway easement: Driveway easements are right-of-way easements that provide one party the right to drive over another party’s property to access their own property — for example, in the case of a deep lot where one homeowner must use another homeowner’s driveway to reach their house.
- Private easement: In the case of private easements, the property owner is the one who can sell the rights to another party. If the property is sold, it’s important for the new owner to be aware of any private easements on the land.
- Prescriptive easement: A prescriptive easement can be granted to a person who doesn’t own the property but has used it in an “open and notorious” way for a specific amount of time without being stopped or interrupted by the property owner.
- Utility easement: A utility easement allows utility companies to gain access to utility poles, electrical lines, sewer lines, cable boxes, and water meters on private land. Some easements also require vertical clearance, such as in the case of a power company needing to trim a tree next to a power line.
The basics of utility easements
While all utility easements have the same basic purpose, they can vary widely in practice based on state regulations and the specific needs and circumstances of each individual property. Here are some of the important facts to know about utility easements:
Standard size of a utility easement
The size of a utility easement can vary depending on the specific needs and requirements of the utility provider, as well as based on local regulations. Some states have standard sizes for specific types of easements, while others may be more flexible by determining the dimensions based on specific circumstances.
Since easements must allow sufficient space for lines or access roads, their width can range anywhere from a few feet to several yards. It’s also worth noting that some easements require not only ground access but vertical clearance. Knowing how much space to provide for an easement will help ensure that you keep the areas around it clear and accessible.
Easement duration and termination
State regulations also differ in terms of how to handle the duration and termination of utility easements. Most utility easements will be permanent; however, some states may have provisions for temporary or limited-term easements. The specific conditions under which an easement can be terminated or modified also vary by state and may require mutual consent or other legal procedures.
To find more information about easement regulations in your particular state, you can take any of the following steps:
- Visit your state’s official legislative website or the website of the department responsible for real estate or land use in your area.
- Conduct an online search for your state’s statutes or codes related to property, land use, or easements.
- Check your local county or city government’s website.
- Reach out to your local utility company directly.
Where easements are recorded
It is wise for future owners to check on current easements before purchasing a property, as these may hinder future plans to make changes to the property. Although real estate agents are usually responsible for disclosing any factors that may affect the use, value, or desirability of a property (such as liens and encumbrances), the buyer can also ask the title company to perform a title search to determine if the property has any easements on it.
If you want to know about any easements on your own property, you can check your property deed. The deed to your property should be available at your local county clerk’s office or courthouse. Your utility company may also have records of any utility easement on your property.
Utility easements: rights, responsibilities, and restrictions
A property owner’s rights and responsibilities regarding utility easements will vary from state to state due to differences in state laws, local regulations, and court decisions. Be aware that these rights and responsibilities are subject to change over time.
According to Molly Haines, an expert in real estate and founder of Cash Home Buyers, “States like California, New York, and Texas generally have more stringent regulations in place, while states like Montana, Alaska, and Wyoming tend to have more lenient regulations. These differences can be attributed to factors such as population density, urban planning, and historical legal precedents.”
For this reason, in order to better understand your rights and responsibilities regarding easements on your property, it is recommended to consult a legal professional with expertise in property law in your area. The following are the basics of what you need to know about your rights, responsibilities, and restrictions regarding a utility easement on your property:
Rights regarding a utility easement
- Compensation: Some states have provisions for offering fair compensation to property owners for the use of their land, while others may not have specific compensation requirements. Compensation will most likely only be offered for a new easement agreement, while every subsequent new owner of the property will be bound by the terms of the existing easements and will not receive further compensation.
- Negotiation and property value: A property owner’s right to negotiate the location or size of an easement (especially if it may have an effect on the value of the property) will depend on the circumstances and on state laws. As Molly Haines explains, “In one particular case where I assisted a homeowner, we successfully negotiated with a utility company to reroute the proposed easement away from their preferred location. By conveying the potential impact on the homeowner’s property value and exploring alternative options, we were able to reach a mutually agreeable resolution. Communication and a knowledgeable attorney helped secure a favorable outcome.”
Responsibilities regarding a utility easement
- Keeping the easement area clear and accessible: Although property ownership comes with the freedom to do whatever one wishes on one’s own property (including the easement area), one cannot obstruct the easement itself. If you plan to build a patio or fence, add a pool or outdoor structure, or plant trees and other vegetation on the land, make sure it will not obstruct a utility company’s access to the easement. Utility companies have the legal right to remove obstructions, which may cause unnecessary damage to your property.
- Calling 811 before you dig: With so many utilities underground, it’s important to confirm their location before you start digging anywhere on your property — otherwise, you may end up inadvertently cutting off your and your neighbors’ services. Before you add that in-ground swimming pool to your backyard, make sure to call 811, the national call-before-you-dig number.
- Maintaining the area: The owner of a property is responsible for maintaining the area within easements on their land. If a utility company has lines going through an undeveloped part of the plot, they will generally be responsible for the maintenance.
Restrictions regarding a utility easement
- Transfer of easements: As frustrating as the requirements and restrictions surrounding them may be, you can’t get rid of easements on your property. They are considered part of the land and are therefore always transferred with the property when it’s sold.
- Limits on alterations: In order to keep the easement accessible, you do not have complete freedom to make improvements or upgrades or to alter the landscaping within the easement area.
- Access refusal: In the case of most easements for utilities, property owners cannot refuse access to utility employees if it is deemed necessary for public services or infrastructure.
- Notification: States have different requirements, but property owners should not expect to be notified when a utility easement is being considered or when maintenance or repairs are planned.
- Eminent domain: The application of eminent domain, which allows the government or authorized entities to acquire certain rights to private property for public use, can vary by state and may apply to utility easements.
3 tips for navigating utility easements
Karina Newman, an expert in real estate and founder of iBuyers, recommends the following tips for navigating utility easements:
- Familiarize yourself with local regulations: Understanding the specific laws in your state regarding easements will empower you to make informed decisions and know your rights.
- Communicate with utilities: If you have concerns about an easement or need clarification, reach out to the utility company. They are often willing to work with you and address any issues that may arise.
- Seek legal advice: If negotiations with utilities or disputes regarding easements become complex, seeking legal advice is recommended. An attorney with expertise in real estate law can provide guidance and ensure your best interests are protected.
- Utility easements give utility companies the right to access private land in order to provide essential services to the community.
- Easement regulations vary by state and may change over time. For this reason, careful research and legal advice are highly recommended whenever you make important decisions regarding your property.
- Current and future owners should understand the common types of easements that can limit the use of a property and know how to find out if a property has any easements on it.
- Property owners should always be aware of their and utility companies’ rights, responsibilities, and restrictions in their specific state.
View Article Sources
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- What Is An Access Easement? – MyLawQuestions
- Utility Easements, Explained – Lower
- What is an Appurtenant Easement? – SuperMoney
- What Is Prescriptive Easement? – SuperMoney
- What Is A Utility Easement? – City of Anaheim
- Everything You Need To Know About Utility Easements – Crest Real Estate
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