Uncovering Easements

Buying homeowner's title insurance while negotiating the purchase of a house is a good first step in tracking down easement information and protecting yourself against future easement problems. This is often sold as a "package deal" with lender's title insurance, which mortgage companies require home buyers to purchase in order to secure a loan. On a $200,000 house, for instance, lender's insurance alone might cost $800; homeowner's title insurance alone, $1,000; or a combined policy, $1,050 (all onetime fees). The lender's title insurance covers the bank for the amount of the mortgage, while homeowner's title insurance protects the owner for the full value of a property.

Included in the fee is the insurer's title report, which carefully examines the property deed to make sure it is free and clear to change hands — and should note any easements attached to it. Most easements come to light this way, but with homeowner's title insurance, if a problematic easement is overlooked during the title search and surfaces later, the homeowner can be reimbursed for the amount that the property is devalued. (Such title insurance will not, however, cover the cost of any work done that might need to be undone.)

If the title search indicates that easements are attached to the deed, the next step is to get a copy of the actual easement documents. The title insurance company may be able to provide them, for a fee; or they can be obtained from the local register or recorder of deeds (or call your town hall or county courthouse for the name of the municipal office that holds these documents).

Any time an easement on the title report raises concern or is confusing, you may want to consult a real estate attorney to review the language. One example of a "red-flag" easement would be a shared driveway agreement with no maintenance provision. Depending on the nature of your concerns, you may then need to hire an appraiser or surveyor (to settle boundary questions, for instance), a civil engineer (to assess a problem utility easement), or an environmental specialist (if a conservation area or geological rights are at issue). Under your guidance, these professionals can closely examine public plat maps and geological surveys to find out more information.

But a title insurance report doesn't always have to uncover every easement, cautions Elisa Cavalier, general counsel for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. In Waco, Texas, for instance, one of real estate broker Diane Wilson's clients had a shock when she was about to put her house up for sale. "It had a highway easement on it that she hadn't known about," Wilson says. The Texas Transportation Department had records of the easement, but nobody else did. "We didn't discover it until they put stakes in her yard," says Wilson. "And she found out they plan to use it to turn a two-lane road into a four-lane road."

In some states, and particularly in rural areas, the title report doesn't have to indicate underground sewer or storm drain systems, highway easements, or geological rights. "You may need to have a professional familiar with such easements do a separate search for that information," says Cavalier.
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