How would you feel if you bought a home that seemed perfect, only to find out you couldn’t use the property like you thought you could?
One buyer bought a home with a good-sized yard that he thought would be perfect for his large dogs to roam free. Soon after the sale closed, he hired a contractor to construct a fence around the property. The day the work started, a neighbor showed up to inform the new homeowner that he couldn’t completely fence the property because of an easement that ran across his property.
An easement grants property rights to someone other than the property owner. Common easements are for ingress and egress, utilities and sewers. Easements must be kept unencumbered.
In the case above, the easement provided the neighbors access to their property. A fence could not be built over the easement because it would deny the neighbor their rights to access.
The property owner had to revise his fence design, which was disappointing. But, easements can be even more problematic, particularly if you assume there is an easement in favor of your property but there isn’t.
A homeowner in the Oakland Hills (Calif.) subdivided his property and sold off the lower half to a builder who constructed a new home on it. The homeowner then put his home on the market and entered into contract to sell it.
The buyer’s real estate agent reviewed the preliminary title report and found that there were no easements either benefiting or restricting use of the property. In particular, there was no sewer easement.
The agent asked the seller how the sewer line from the house connected to the main city sewer line. It turned out that the sewer line ran downhill across the portion of the property that had been subdivided and sold.
In this case, an error of omission occurred during the subdivision process. A sewer easement should have been granted in favor of the owner of the upper portion of the property. Consequently, the owner of the upper property no longer had a legal right to run his sewer line across the adjacent property.
HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Make sure you have a clear understanding of the title issues affecting a property before you buy it. In some states such as California, title companies check the record and issue a title report that includes such things as the recorded owner and liens, easements and encumbrances affecting the property. In other states, buyers hire attorneys to search the title record and produce a report.
In the aftermath of the subprime lending crisis, it’s especially important to investigate the status of any liens secured against the property. A preliminary title report will give you the original amount of such items as mortgages and taxes owed. But, the preliminary report won’t necessarily tell you the amount the sellers currently owe.
All liens secured against the property must be paid in full in order for the seller to pass clear title to a buyer. If the seller has an interest-only mortgage and has not made any payments toward retiring the principal amount borrowed, he could still owe the original amount he borrowed. If the mortgage was a teaser-rate adjustable with an option to pay the minimal amount due, the seller could owe more than what is indicated on the title report.
THE CLOSING: Problems that could delay or derail closing can develop when the owner of record is not the same person who listed the property for sale. Before concluding a home purchase, make certain that the seller has the power of sale and that the property you’re buying is what you bargained for.
Dian Hymer is author of “House Hunting, The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers” and “Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide,” Chronicle Books.