Title Tip: Sticks And Stones And Property Rights

By Lydia Blair
Special Contributor

Your home might be made of bricks and stones, but your property rights are more like a bundle of sticks. It might be a big bundle or a little bundle. Some sticks are larger than others. But each stick represents a right to your real estate.

In the beginning of time (or for the sake of this article, let’s say 200 years ago), a piece of land included all rights to the property along with the right to do what you want with it. Like a great big bundle of sticks.

But as time goes by, some property rights can be taken away, given away or sold. A stick might be taken out of the bundle from time to time. Some may be removed voluntarily and others may have been taken for another reason.

An easement is an example of one of those property rights. An easement lets you use a portion of a property that you don’t own. It is a limited right granted by the owner allowing some use or benefit to a specific area of the land.

You might voluntarily grant an electric company easement on your property in order to obtain electricity service to your home. That’s a stick pulled out of your bundle of rights. A cable company or water line easement would be another stick or two. Larger tracts of land might have roadway easements as well.

The mineral rights to your property could be a small stick or a large stick. Depends on the size and location of the land. Oil & gas rights represent another stick. There are tunnel rights, air rights, even solar rights to real estate.

Brandi Abercrombie, Operations Manager of M/I Title, describes properties rights in her Land Title class. She explains that the ownership that holds the most rights you can have in real property is called Fee Simple ownership. It’s the whole bundle of sticks.

Lydia Blair with Brandi Abercrombie

“Disregarding any severances, Fee Simple ownership includes all the way to the heavens and all the way to the center of the earth,” says Abercrombie. It’s what most of us envision when we buy a property.

Whereas, Leasehold ownership is like owning one stick – not the bundle. With a Leasehold, someone else owns the land and you have the right to use it for a predetermined amount of time. That time could be 40 years, 99 years, … whatever you purchase from the owner.

Think of your property as “bricks and sticks”. The actual land and improvements are the bricks. That would include the house and the dirt it sits on. The property rights are the sticks.

A property owner can transfer, sell or give away all or part of the bricks and sticks by deed, lease, easement, mortgage, or will. Some involuntary changes in ownership of the bricks and sticks can include court decree ( divorce, property disputes, fraud), bankruptcy, inheritance, foreclosure, and court-ordered sale.

When you purchase a property, it may or may not include all of the property rights. The seller can’t sell you rights that they don’t own. Next time you purchase a property, ask what rights may or may not come with it.

The opinions expressed are of the individual author for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Contact an attorney to obtain advice for any particular issue or problem.