One of the basic tenets of private property ownership is the right to exclude others. However, this right in and of itself does not guarantee people won’t bother you on your off-the-grid homestead. First, nearby neighbors or other people may be bothersome regardless of your legal rights. Second, the right to exclude has become eroded as the government has given itself and private entities (like utilities) easements or rights-of-way over private property. With this in mind, here are five tips to remember when looking for the perfect off-the-grid location.
Obviously, not having any neighbors nearby is ideal if you want to be left alone. If you can afford enough acreage or live far enough away from population centers, this may be possible. Otherwise, other people likely will be living nearby. So, then it becomes a question of what type of people live nearby. Are they hardworking homesteaders that respect your privacy? Or do they like to entertain and have loud parties every weekend? When first looking at a possible location, invest some time in determining what the neighbors are like. This may not be easy and you should take anything the current owner says with a grain of salt.
2. Private Party Easements
Easements give people the right to use someone else’s private property for a specific purpose. In rural settings, often the only way to access an isolated parcel is by driving through someone else’s property. For example, you may own 40 acres off of a public road, but there is a neighbor that owns another 40-acre parcel directly behind you.
The dirt road that serves as your driveway extends beyond your home and continues to the parcel behind. That neighbor may have negotiated an easement to use your driveway to access his property. Typically, easements are set up legally so that they exist even after a piece of property is sold. When reviewing a title insurance report, easements such as these will be listed under exceptions.
3. Utility Easements
Public utilities also have been granted expansive easements by the government. If you have power lines or telephone lines running through your property, the respective utility companies likely have easements to access your property to maintain or repair their system. For example, power companies generally remove all vegetation and trees underneath and nearby their power lines. While this is reasonable, sometimes private individuals might enjoy racing their motorcycles or snowmobiles over the cleared land under the power lines. These same people also likely would ignore the easement boundaries. Utility easements also are included in a title insurance report.
4. Access to Water
Private easements and utility easements are generally clearly spelled out, but the public’s right to access some surface waters may or may not be well-documented in the title report. For example, if you live along a beautiful river, people have a right to be on the waterway, racing their motorboats and blaring music the whole time.
While many people may understand this right-of-access, deeded easements or state laws may allow the public access to even the smallest creeks. Check your title insurance report and consider consulting an attorney if you’re interested in purchasing property that has surface water running through it.
5. Environmental Easements
Finally, make sure to understand any environmental easements that have been placed on the property. Environmental easements are negative easements, because they place restrictions on the owner’s use of the land. These restrictions vary widely, but common ones include no residential use, no use of ground water, no disturbance of soil, and no removal of trees.
There are many reasons why a given property may have deeded environmental easements. In some cases, a previous owner entered into one with the government if an environmental clean-up was necessary. A more recent reason is the existence of non-profit environmental groups that pay private landowners for easements. The purpose behind this is to protect an aspect of the environment considered important to the non-profit. For example, if you have a ranch with a river running through it, a non-profit may purchase an easement that restricts activity that could impact the river. For example, the easement could prohibit disturbance of the soil within 100 yards of the river (to prevent sedimentation), or prohibit livestock from coming within 100 yards of the river (to prevent sedimentation and bacteria from animal waste).
Some of these negative easements allow the non-profit access to the property for inspection. If you don’t like people bothering you on your property, you probably won’t like having people show up any time they feel like it to nose around trying to find non-compliance with a negative easement.
For hundreds of years, the federal government, state governments and private parties have included restrictions on the use of private property. Many of these “run with the land,” which means that they continue to be applicable even when the land is sold.
When you think you’ve found the perfect piece of property, review the title insurance report and consult an attorney to ensure that you understand who may have the right to be on your land.
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