- Understand the concept of real property.
- Examine methods of acquisition of real property.
- Understand different interests in real property, including ownership interests and scope of interests.
- Examine the landlord-tenant relationship.
Real property is land, and certain things that are attached to it or associated with it. Real property includes undeveloped land, like a forest or a field, and it includes buildings, such as houses, condominiums, and office buildings. Real property also includes things associated with the land, like subsurface rights. Fixtures are personal property that have become attached to the land, and they are transferred with the land. Fixtures in a house include things like the lights affixed to the ceiling, the furnace, and the bathtub. Plants and trees that grow on the land are real property until they are severed from the land. For example, farmers’ crops are part of their real property until they are separated from the land, at which time they become personal property.
Methods of Acquisition
Real property may be acquired for ownership (the title may be obtained) in one of several ways. It may be purchased, inherited, gifted, or even acquired through adverse possession. Ownership rights are transferred by title. Ownership of real property means that the owner has the right to possess the property, as well as the right to exclude others, within the boundaries of the law. If someone substantially interferes with your use and enjoyment of your real property, you may bring a claim in nuisance (a form of tort law). For example, if a neighbor decides to start burning tires on his property, the smell of the burning tires might substantially interfere with your use and enjoyment of your property, so you would have an actionable claim in nuisance. Similarly, if you own real property, you might rightfully seek damages against those who enter your land without your consent or permission. This would be a trespass to land claim. Owners of real property may also sell the real property, in whole or in part.
The most common way that real property is acquired is through purchase. Property law is a state law matter, and state laws vary regarding conveyance of property. Typically, someone who is interested in acquiring real property will ask a third party, such as a real estate agent or a broker, to help locate a suitable property and to facilitate the terms of the deal. The buyer and seller will negotiate a contract, which will contain all essential terms of the sale, such as location of the real property, price, fixtures that will be excluded from sale, and the type of ownership interest that is being transferred. Both parties will perform their promises under the contract (e.g., the buyer will pay the seller, and the seller will transfer the title via deed) to close the deal (“closing”), and then the deed will be recorded. A contract for any interest in property must be in writing to be valid against the defendant according to the Statute of Frauds.
Different types of deeds convey different types of interests. A quitclaim deed, for instance, conveys whatever interests in title that the grantor has in the property to the party to whom the quitclaim is given. Of course, that means if the grantor has no interests in the real property, a conveyance by quitclaim will not grant any interests in the property. For example, if you grant a quitclaim deed to your friend for the Empire State Building, then that means that you have transferred your interests in title to that building to your friend. If you have no interests in the title to the Empire State Building to begin with, then on conveyance of the quitclaim deed, your friend will not have any interests in the building either. You cannot convey interests that you do not have. On the other hand, many states allow a warranty deed, which conveys title and a warranty against defects in title as well as encumbrances. Buyers typically demand a warranty deed when they purchase property.
After title is transferred by the deed, the deed is typically recorded. Recording the deed is not necessary for ownership. However, recording a deed to property is important because it places others on notice that whoever has recorded the deed to the property owns the property. Some states favor the rights of those who record the deed first (under a race statute), while other states favor the rights of those who acquired the interest first without notice of other claims to the property (under a notice statute). A race/notice system, which has a race/notice statute, is one in which priority is given to the first bona fide purchaser to record when there is a conflict in ownership claim. A bona fide purchaser is simply a purchaser who takes title in good faith, with no knowledge of competing claims to title.
Besides outright purchase, another common way in which real property may be obtained is through inheritance. Real property may be bequeathed through a will or may transfer per state statutes when a decedent dies intestate. Generally speaking, people have the right to dispose of their property as they wish when they die, providing that their will or other transfer instrument meets their state’s requirements for validity. When someone dies intestate, state statutes will determine who among the decedent’s relatives receives the property. For example, state statutes often specify that property will go to the spouse, and if there is no spouse, then to the children. If there are no children, then to the parents. If there are no living parents, then to the siblings, and so on. If no such person exists, the property may finally escheat to the state.
Real property may also be acquired through a gift. Providing that the person who is giving the property actually intends to make the gift of title, delivers the deed to the recipient, and the gift is accepted, then the gift is valid. If one of these elements is not met, for instance, if the deed is not delivered to the intended party (or to a third party to hold for the intended party), then the gift has not been successfully made, and the title will not be conveyed.
A less common way to acquire real property is through the doctrine of adverse possession. Colloquially, this is often referred to as “squatter’s rights.” At its heart, this method of acquiring property captures the deeply held belief that a land’s value is in its use for profit. If a land sits idle at the owner’s hands but someone else puts it to use, then the law may—just may—favor the user’s claim to the land over that of the actual owner.
Adverse possession is when someone who is not the owner of real property has claimed the real property for his own. To be successful under this doctrine, several elements must be met. These include the following:
- The possessor must be in actual possession.
- The possession must be open and notorious, which means that it must be obvious to others (visible).
- The possession must be hostile, which means that it is against the actual owner’s interests.
- The possession must be continuous, which means that the possessor cannot have been evicted during the statutory length of time required to obtain title through possession.
- The possession must be exclusive.
- The state statutory length of time must be met, and this time varies from state to state. For example, some states, like Maine, require a twenty-year period, while other states, like Nevada, require only a five-year period.
Some states’ adverse possession laws also require that the possessor pay property taxes on the property during the course of the adverse possession. If all of these elements are met, then the possessor can bring a claim to quiet title. If successful, the possessor becomes the owner, without any compensation being made to the former owner.
Adverse possession and claims for quiet title often occur around property lines, where one party has routinely used another’s property because a fence has been misplaced. Other instances involve claims concerning land owned by people who do not visit it, such as land owned in a remote area. Still, other examples exist in cases of ouster, when a tenant in common constructively or actually evicts others with valid ownership interests. Remember that all elements of an adverse possession must occur for the entire statutory length of time for an action for quiet title to be successful. This means, for instance, if the owner checks on the property and finds someone there, the owner must interfere with those elements. The owner should evict the trespasser, and this can be accomplished by summoning the police. Doing so would break the continuity requirement.
A recent case in Boulder, Colorado, prompted the Colorado legislature to substantially alter the state’s adverse possession laws. In that case, a married couple, composed of a judge and an attorney, met the requirements for adverse possession and successfully brought an action for quiet title. In that case, the adverse possessors were clearly versed in the law. The actual owners of the property had purchased the land many years before to build a future retirement home. Check out "Hyperlink: A Question of Ethics" and see whether you think the Colorado legislature overreacted.
Hyperlink: A Question of Ethics
Is adverse possession a legally sanctioned form of theft?
Interests and Scope
Owning real property carries many responsibilities, as well as the potential for great profit and great liability. It is important to recognize the duties associated with property ownership, and learn how to protect yourself against potential liability associated with it. For instance, if a toxic waste site is discovered on your real property, you may very well be liable for its cleanup, even if you did not realize that such a site was there when you purchased the land. Each buyer of real property has a duty to exercise due diligence when purchasing land. The idea is that you should have known about the site, if it was discoverable on inspection. Knowing this, along with familiarity with the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), helps us recognize that we should never agree to buy land “sight unseen,” or at least without a professional inspector that we trust. But what if an old toxic waste site is located on property that you wish to sell? You would have a duty to disclose such a defect in the land to prospective buyers before conveying ownership.
Additionally, we must consider duties that landowners have to other people who enter the land. What are our duties to people who visit our home? Or our retail establishment? What if they are not invited but instead are trespassers? These duties of landowners will vary depending on the status of the person who was injured.
What if a gold mine were discovered on land that you used to own? Can you profit from that discovery? Probably not, if you conveyed full ownership to someone else.
As these examples illustrate, it is important to know about the duties of landowners, how to limit liability associated with the ownership of land, and when severance of liability occurs. These types of questions can be considered more fully when we consider ownership interests.
Additionally, it is important to know how an owner of real property may use the property, or the scope of his or her rights. Consider these questions: If you owned a lot in the middle of a city, can you build an apartment building that blocks the neighboring landowner’s light? Or if you own a piece of raw land where you discover oil, can you drill on your land if it siphons oil from underneath your neighbor’s land, or if it causes your neighbor’s land to collapse due to lack of subsurface support? If you live on a coastline and your neighbor builds a dyke that causes your waterfront property line to erode so that over the years your property is reduced in size, do you have an actionable claim against your neighbor? Conversely, if the ebb and flow of water along the coastline increases your property due to natural accretion, do you own the “new” property, even though it wasn’t part of the original purchase? Consider water disputes, which are a very hot topic in the western states. If you live next to a river, can you divert the entire stream of water, even if you wanted to divert it for a capricious reason? Imagine that you dreamed of having a very large private water park for your family, but you needed all the water in a river that adjoined your property to make that dream a reality. If you diverted all that water, other riparian owners might very well have an actionable claim. What if it was a drought year and you relied on water from a river to irrigate your commercial crops, but endangered salmon in the river needed the water for their habitat? Can you take the water for your crop, or must the water be left in the river for the endangered salmon? These types of legal questions can be addressed when we consider the scope of rights.
The following sections address duties of landowners, ownership interests, and scope of interest in real property.
Duties of Landowners
Landowners owe different duties to different types of people who enter their land. These responsibilities vary, depending on whether the person is a trespasser, a licensee, or an invitee.
A trespasser is a person who voluntarily, intentionally enters the land of another without permission or privilege. A landowner has a duty not to intentionally injure a trespasser. For instance, booby traps, pitfalls, or anything of the sort are simply not permitted. Trespassers injured from such a trap have valid claims against the landowner for injuries.
A licensee is someone who has permission to be on the land. Landowners have a higher duty of care to such a person. Not only must a landowner not intentionally injure a licensee, but the landowner must also warn the licensee of known defects. For example, if a landowner knows that the steps to his or her porch are icy, he or she has a duty to warn a licensee—such as a visiting friend—that those steps are icy. Failure to do so may result in liability for the landowner.
An invitee is someone who has entered real property by invitation. Businesses have issued invitations to the public. Public places have issued invitations to the public. Anyone who arrives at the invitation of an owner is an invitee. Landowners must inspect their property for defects, correct those defects when found, and warn invitees about such defects. This is why you will see a “caution” sign on the floor of a grocery store, after it has been mopped or after a liquid spill.
Ownership Interests in Real Property
Different types of interests may be owned in real property. For example, real property may be owned without restriction, subject only to local, state, and federal laws. Or ownership interests may be narrower, subject to conditions, the violation of which can lead to loss of those ownership interests.
The most complete ownership interest is represented by fee simple absolute. The owner of property in fee simple absolute has the greatest ownership interest recognized by law. Generally, if someone wants to buy real property, he or she is looking to buy property in fee simple absolute.
Compare that with a defeasible fee. A fee simple defeasible is subject to a condition of ownership or to some future event. For instance, if you donated land to “the City of Nashville, so long as it is used as a public greenway,” then the land would be owned in defeasible fee by the City of Nashville, unless it decided to do something else with the land, besides maintain it as a public greenway. Once the condition is violated, the land would revert back to either the original owner or whoever owned the reversion interest, which is a future interest in real property.
Another ownership interest is a life estate. This interest is measured by the life of the owner in the life estate. If you wished to grant ownership rights in real property to your mother for the length of her life, but then expected the property to be returned to you upon her death, you might grant a life estate to her. Similarly, a common investment, known as a reverse mortgage, employs the concept of life estate. A reverse mortgage is an arrangement where the purchaser of real property agrees to allow the seller of the property to retain possession of the property for a specified period of time (such as the remainder of his or her life) in exchange for the ability to purchase the property at today’s price. This can be an attractive investment if the investor believes that the value of the property will increase in the future and if the investor does not need immediate possession of the property. These arrangements essentially gamble on life expectancies of the sellers of real property by granting life estates to them in the property. However, sometimes this backfires. Check out "Hyperlink: Reverse Mortgage" for an example of a seller who outlived her investor in such an arrangement.
Hyperlink: Reverse Mortgage
“In life, one sometimes makes bad deals,” said Jeanne Calment, the oldest living woman in history, concerning the investor who “reverse mortgaged” her apartment.
Sometimes, more than one owner owns the interest in the property. Several types of co-ownership interests are recognized in law. These ownership interests are important for matters of possession, right to transfer, right to profits from the land, and liability. For example, tenancy in common describes an ownership interest in which all owners have an undivided interest in the property, equal rights of possession, and a devisable interest. Compare this to a joint tenancy, which describes an ownership interest in which the surviving owner has the right of survivorship. Imagine that you own a gold mine with your partner, Frank. Would you rather have a tenancy in common or a joint tenancy? You would rather have a joint tenancy because if Frank dies, then his interest in the gold mine would vest in you, rather than in his heirs. After all, you may not want to be a partner with Frank’s grandson (or whoever), but that is exactly what might happen with tenancy in common. Similarly, a tenancy by the entirety includes the right of survivorship, but it can only occur between a husband and wife. This concept is recognized in some states, but not all states.
These different interests are created by specific wording in the instrument of conveyance. To create a tenancy in common, the language would be “To John and Frank,” if John and Frank were to be the co-owners. However, if a joint tenancy were intended, the conveyance would have to be more specific, like this: “To John and Frank, with rights of survivorship.” Note that John and Frank could not benefit from a tenancy by the entirety unless they lived in a state that recognized same-sex marriages, and unless they were, in fact, married. Moreover, such questions have not yet arisen in our courts because the legal concept of same-sex marriage is still nascent and, in many states, not yet recognized in law.
Note that a tenant in tenancy in common may sell or transfer his or her rights without seeking permission from his or her cotenant. Imagine that you owned a farm with your best friend. At first, you agree to engage only in organic farming practices. Later, your friend wants to move to conventional farming practices. Since you do not want any part in the spraying of pesticides or herbicides on the land, you decide to sell your interests to someone else. Even if your friend opposes the sale, he or she cannot block it. This is because cotenants in a tenancy in common have the unilateral right to transfer their interests in property. Imagine, later, that someone working on that land becomes very sick from a pesticide sprayed there after you sold your interest. You would not be liable for any damages resulting from such an event, because your liability would be severed with the sale. Compare this to a joint tenancy, including tenancy by the entirety. To transfer one’s interests, the consent and approval of the cotenant is required. In the case that joint tenants disagree about the use of the property or its disposal, the courts can step in to grant a partition of the land, which essentially results in a separate parcels being granted to the individual tenants. This recasts the formerly joint tenants into adjacent landowners, and it allows them to dispose of or use their property as each sees fit, with no rights to the other’s property.
Scope of Interests in Real Property
Scope of ownership matters, because it is determinative of what can (or cannot) be done with the land. The surface of the land and the buildings that are attached to the land are implicitly included when most people contemplate the scope of ownership of real property. However, other interests can be parsed and conveyed separately, including subsurface or mineral rights, and right to light or right to a view. Moreover, water rights are granted differently, depending on whether the property is in the western or the eastern United States. Additionally, easements and covenants grant certain rights to nonpossessors of land.
Subsurface or mineral rights are rights to the substances beneath the actual surface of the land. If you are interesting in drilling for oil, but you do not want to buy every piece of land where you might wish to speculate, then you probably are in the market to purchase or lease mineral rights. This would allow you the right to extract whatever you find under the surface of the land and sell it.
Water rights are determined in two different ways in the United States. Generally speaking, states east of the Mississippi River follow a riparian water rights doctrine, which means that those who live next to the water have a right to use the water. The water is shared among the riparian owners. In a quite different scheme, most western states use the concept of prior appropriation, which grants rights to those who used those rights “first in time.” Moreover, under this concept, the use must be beneficial, but the owner of the right need not be an adjacent landowner. This policy has led to some unnatural uses of land in western states, where water rights are highly valued due to the scarcity. For example, we see flourishing farmlands in extremely arid climates because the owners of the water rights want to make sure that they retain their prior appropriation rights to the water by putting it to beneficial use (e.g., crop irrigation). If water is not put to beneficial use under a prior appropriation doctrine, then those rights can be lost. Prior appropriation is basically a “use it or lose it” doctrine. Moreover, adjacent landowners in prior appropriation states may have no right whatsoever to use the water that runs through their land. Indeed, such an outcome is very common.
Easements and covenants are nonpossessory interests in real property. An easement is created expressly or impliedly, and it generally gives people the right to use another’s land for a particular purpose. For example, an easement for utility companies to enter onto the land of others is common. This allows the utility companies to maintain poles, power lines, cable lines, and so on. Other examples include a landlocked property having an easement across another piece of property for the purpose of a driveway, or an easement granted to the public to walk along the property of another to gain access to the shoreline.
A covenant is a voluntary restriction on the use of land. Common covenants are homeowners associations’ rules, which restrict the rights of the owners to use their land in certain ways, often for aesthetic purposes. For instance, such covenants might require houses subject to the covenant to be painted only in certain preapproved colors, or they might contain prohibitions against building swimming pools.
Some covenants and easements run with the land, which means that the restrictions will apply to subsequent owners of the real property. Whether a covenant or easement runs with the land depends on the type of interest granted.
A leasehold interest may be created in real property. For example, if you rent an apartment, house, or dormitory room from campus, you are a tenant with a leasehold interest. In such a relationship, you are the tenant and the property owner is the landlord. A leasehold is simply a possessory interest with certain rights and duties, which are typically specified in the lease agreement. For example, a tenant has the right to exclusive possession of the real property and the duty to follow the rules of occupancy set out by the landlord, and a landlord in a residential lease agreement has the right to be paid rent and the duty to ensure that the premises are habitable. If one party does not perform under the lease as required, the other party may seek legal remedy. For example, if a tenant does not pay rent, then a landlord may lawfully evict the tenant from the premises, even if the term of the lease has not run. Like other interests in real property, leases generally must be in writing to be enforceable against the defendant.
Different types of tenancies may be created. The most common tenancies are probably tenancies for years and periodic tenancies. Tenancy for years is simply a tenancy that lasts for a particular, specified period of time. When you rent an apartment, you might sign a lease for nine months to reflect the school year. That would be a tenancy for years, even though the term of the lease is less than one year. A periodic tenancy, on the other hand, is a tenancy that simply runs for a particular period of time and then automatically renews if it is not terminated by the landlord or the tenant. For instance, a one-year lease may become a periodic tenancy if neither party terminates. Imagine that you had a one-year lease but you did not move out at the end of the year, and the landlord continued to accept rent payments and took no action to terminate the lease. A new lease—for a one-year period of time—would be created. Less common types of tenancies are tenancy at will, which is a tenancy for no particular fixed period of time and subject to termination at will by either the landlord or the tenant, and tenancy at sufferance, which is a tenancy that occurs when a tenant remains on the property after the right of possession has ended and without the landlord’s consent.
Tenancies may be created for residential purposes or commercial purposes. Commercial leases typically last for longer periods of time than residential leases. For example, it is not uncommon to hear about commercial leases that last five, ten, twenty-five, or even ninety-nine years. Many of the same responsibilities and duties exist with commercial leases, but there are some important differences. For example, a commercial tenant may demand that the landlord refuse to rent to a competitor of the tenant within the same building. For example, if a golf shop locates in a strip mall, it may require as a term in the lease that the landlord refrain from renting other retail space to a competitor golf shop within the same strip mall.
Lease interests are assignable unless those rights are expressly restricted by the lease agreement. This means that the rights conveyed by the lease, which is a contract, may be transferred to another party by assignment, unless an express restriction on assignment exists within the lease. You may have seen restrictions on assignment in your own residential lease in the form of a no-subletting clause. Commercial leases routinely contain a restriction on assignment without permission from the landlord.
Just as the owner of real property may sell any or all of his or her interests, any ownership interest in real property may also be leased. For example, someone who owns the subsurface rights of land may lease the right to drill for oil or gas to another.
Real property may be acquired by purchase, inheritance, gift, or adverse possession. Owners of property must know the breadth and limits of their ownership interests to understand their rights to profits derived from the land and their liability resulting from use of their land. Interests in land may be absolute, conditional, or for a period of time. Additionally, co-owners may have different rights, depending on their kind of ownership. The scope of interest in land may include surface and the buildings attached to it, while other interests may be severed and conveyed separately, such as subsurface rights and water rights. Easements and covenants in real property convey nonpossessory interests. Leasehold interests are possessory, nonownership interests.
- Do you agree that a land’s value is only its profits? If not, what makes land valuable? Does it have an “inherent” value, which has nothing to do with human profit?
- Consider this contemporary take on the tort of nuisance. Some Gulf Coast landowners filed a nuisance suit against power companies for emitting carbon, arguing that the carbon led to global warming, which then led to increased sea levels, which then led to hurricane Katrina’s unusual ferocity and strength. The district court dismissed the case, but a three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit reversed, saying the landowners had standing to proceed and that the claim was justiciable. Do you think that this is a valid nuisance claim? Why or why not?
- Do you think that adverse possession should be abolished? Why or why not? If you discovered a squatter on your land, what should you do to protect your title?
- What type of due diligence can be performed to ensure that property does not contain a buried toxic waste dump?
- Classify the following as trespasser, licensee, or invitee to determine the duty owed by a landowner:
- The mailman
- A customer in Wal-Mart
- A person who cuts across your land to reach the other side, without your permission
- Think of a situation in which you would grant a life estate to someone in property that you own. How does that situation differ from renting property to a tenant?
- Find a story in the newspaper about liability resulting from the ownership of real property. Do you think that landowner should be liable in the case that you located? Why or why not?
- What benefits can you see for both the landlord and the tenant for extremely long leases? What are the risks?