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Build on an Easement


Build on an Easement?
Typical Drainage Easement on Private Property

Typical Drainage Easement on Private Property

Public Domain (King County, WA)
You might have an easement on your property. Easements usually lie there quietly, not affecting you for years or decades. Then, you decide to bump out your house, put on an addition, dig a pool, or erect a fence and you find out that you have a legal easement on your property.

Most homeowners should already know that their property contains an easement: it's right there in the title documents when you buy the house. But as the years go by, we tend to forget such things. If the homeowner dies and the house goes to a child, it's easy to miss such details altogether when the transaction is made.

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 sometimes--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.

7 Easements That Affect You

The world abounds with easements, but only certain types may affect a homeowner who wants to build or remodel. Some types listed in order of how common they tend to be: <7l>
  • Utility Easements (Below Ground): Storm drains, sanitary sewer mains, or natural gas lines.
  • Utility Easements (Above Ground): Electrical power lines or telephone lines.
  • Sidewalk Easements: The most common type of easement, one 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.
  • Driveway Easements: A typical scenario: you have a deep lot which 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 back lot. To gain access to that back lot, 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.
  • Conservation Easements: This may be a greenbelt or park running alongside your property.
  • View Easements: 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.

    What Does Your Deed Say About Easements?

    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.

    Typical language might say:

    Easement provisions, covenants, conditions, restrictions, dedications, agreements, notes, and other matter as contained in the plat...

    Easement and the terms and conditions referenced therein...

    Grantee: Big Time Utility Corp., for the purpose of sanitary sewers with necessary appurtenances...

    Contains covenant prohibiting structures such as buildings, rockeries, and retaining walls erected within said easement.

    What Can You Build?

    The short and most prudent answer: nothing. If you value peace of mind over everything else, staying off of an easement--any kind of building, from a house addition all the way down to a child's playhouse--is the only way to go.

    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.

    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. Personally, I would put an above-ground hot tub or pool on an easement if I had no other options.

    Trees and other major vegetation (lawns and shallow-rooted shrubs are not major) should not be planted on easements.

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