Buyer Beware

The conservation easement plaguing LaSov is just one of many kinds of easements that homeowners have to worry about. Simply put, an easement grants someone besides the property owner the right to use or pass over a specified part of the land for a particular purpose.

Many residential properties in the United States have utility easements that were put in place decades ago. These typically run along property lines or encroach on lots by a few yards and are reserved for gas, electric, and telephone companies to install and maintain their cables, pipes, and poles. In some cases, they can mean frequent visits by repair trucks and crews. Even more intrusive can be easements for water supply, storm drainage, and sewer maintenance, because these sometimes cut straight through a yard. If a sewer pipe breaks, for instance, an entire backyard or even a driveway may be torn up to repair it. And perhaps the most potentially annoying easements are those that give a neighbor the right to use part of an adjacent property because his driveway crosses it — a frequent occurrence on irregularly shaped properties and flag lots (which are separated from roads by surrounding lots).

Most utility and conservation easements exist in perpetuity and are transferred from property owner to property owner. Other easements, such as a neighbor's access to a strip of your backyard to get to his own, may have a limited life and may be terminated or renegotiated at regular intervals. Either way, experts say, home buyers should find out everything they can about easements on a property before agreeing to purchase it — or risk a raft of headaches. If a homeowner unknowingly builds on, blocks access to, or improperly uses land on which an easement exists — however innocently — the result can be costly fines and having to undo pricey improvements to the property. "We've seen case after case where fixing an easement problem after the fact is expensive or even impossible," says Alan Hummel, vice president of the Appraisal Institute, a trade group in Chicago.
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