The Importance of Land Access
When you find the perfect property and all of the papers are signed, it's easy to assume that your access to the land you just bought is protected. It's also easy to assume that access for others is limited—if not completely forbidden.
But these aren’t always givens. You probably don't want to purchase a property that serves as a thoroughfare for unauthorized travelers, no more than you want to be that unauthorized traveler when trying to reach your own land!
That’s why, when buying recreational property, it's important to ask good questions about land access.
Why Property Access is Important
In real terms, landowners are legally entitled to having access to their property if it touches a public road or a highway. They don’t have to be deeded owners of that access, even if it runs through another property, but without it their land is as good as useless.
If you cannot get to your land, you can’t use it. It’s just that simple.
Types of Access
Land access can be facilitated in a variety of ways.
Road access falls into two main categories.
- Public road: Public road access means the property you are considering touches a road maintained by the local, state, or federal government. There are no property lines to cross to access your land.
- Deeded access: Deeded access means that you’ll need to cross another property to get to yours, but that access is legally protected by a deed. Most of these types of properties have deeded access in perpetuity, but this is not always the case.
What is Landlocked Property?
Landlocked property is, in short, big trouble. Access is undeeded—every time you go to your property you are essentially trespassing onto another property.
Typically, this situation occurs when a large parcel of land is divided up among family members but no legal agreement is put into place regarding access. If the family members decide to sell a landlocked parcel, lack of deeded access can cause trouble.
Some states have passed laws that codify access for landlocked parcels. In other words, one neighbor may not prevent another from accessing property. However, this only allows a landowner to visit their property—access for adding water or public utilities is not guaranteed.
Easements that cover ingress (entering) and egress (exiting) a property occur when you need to pass through another person’s property or use a private road to access your property.
Appurtenant easements are for the benefit of the landowner, while gross easements exist for the benefit of a company or other business (e.g. utilities). Both generally transfer with the land when it is sold.
Easements are usually set in place for:
- Subdivisions with private roads not maintained by local, state, or federal governments
- Shared driveways
- Utility companies for servicing, improving, or adding to their equipment
- First responders or search-and-rescue
Some of these easements are in place as a part of local law, while others are granted in the process of building a development or subdividing land.
It’s important to note that other easements restrict certain types of uses. For example, conservation easements prohibit some residential construction or agricultural use in perpetuity.
Additionally, not all easements need to be permanent. In some cases, these are temporary agreements put into place as another property owner develops or creates their own access. If this is the case, the easement can be terminated once other access is available.
Many people confuse easements with a right-of-way, but these are very different. While easements are granted for a specific use by specific parties other than the landowner, a right-of-way allows anyone to pass across an area of property.
Examples of right-of-way include paths that lead to trailheads of public recreational areas and roads that cut through your property. Anyone can use these public thoroughfares.
People purchasing recreational land with river frontage or lake frontage should be aware of any right-of-way areas that allow the public to access the water. It can be startling to look out over a beautiful morning sunrise and see strangers crossing your back property to access the water.
When it comes to who owns right-of-way property, you’ll need to know what you are getting into!
Public rights-of-way give water access to everyone, but there are usually prohibitions against docking or storing a boat on public ramps. If you need regular, permanent water access to your land (and a place to keep your boat), you’ll need to check to make sure it’s available.
If you plan to travel to and from your property by private airplane, make sure that you have access to any existing runways or other aviation-related areas on your land (or can apply for a permit to construct a runway if needed). This is not a common situation, but it’s important to establish access by air if it applies to you.
How Do Easements Affect Property Value?
The effects of easements on property value is tricky to calculate. Some easements, like the kind that are common with public utilities, are par for the course and have a limited effect on property value.
However, a right-of-way for water access may cause significant disruption to landowners. This can be detrimental and cause a decrease in the value of the property. Additionally, if a property is landlocked and comes without an easement that guarantees land access, the value may drop dramatically.
Road Access 101: How to Establish a Road Easement
If your property does not come with road access, start by negotiating an easement with the seller. You can stipulate that deeded access needs to be finalized for the sale to occur. A property survey will indicate where easements already exist and suggest the best place for an additional road easement to be put into place.
Any road easements created as part of the sale should be recorded, just as the deed and mortgage for the property are recorded. This makes them a legal part of the sale.
Do note that states that outlaw landlocked properties also allow what is called an easement by necessity. If there is no way to access your property other than to cross another landowner’s property, this is permitted by law.
As noted above, it does not give you the right to make any changes or run utilities, and you can be held liable for any damage to the property as you cross. This is typically not the best case scenario for gaining road access to your land.
In most states, sellers are legally required to disclose any easements that exist on their property, but identifying other types of land access may not be required. An AcrePro agent can help you troubleshoot any areas of concern to negotiate the access you need.