Property Rights: Definition, and Characteristics

Property ownership can be determined by researching public property records found at the county courthouse or registry of deeds. Records show how properties have been improved, subdivided, transferred, and combined over time.

What is Property Rights Law?

In the United States, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution covers property rights, specifically requiring due process in order for a government to take property from an individual. That means that a government seeking to take land for a civic project, such as a new highway, must provide fair compensation as well as justifying the confiscation with a transparent procedure.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution further illuminates the property rights of owners to include an expectation of privacy as well as protection against illegal or unreasonable search and seizure. Authorities are required to produce warrants to enter properties to search for instruments used in crimes. These precepts are the backbone of American freedoms but they can be interpreted by the courts, so consistency is the goal but it is not always possible.

Property Owner Rights 

What rights do I have as a property owner?

Ownership comes with property rights and corresponding responsibilities. Among the rights of property owners are:

  • enjoyment – property rights gain owners right to make use of their property in ways that please them, but this right may be limited by community, state, and local laws that pertain to things from the color of the buildings to other items displayed there, noise levels, and even maintenance of the land.
  • use – property owners may enjoy the use of their land, building, or other possession but that is constrained by laws that outline appropriate uses. For instance, a property in a residential neighborhood may be limited to household use and not industrial use.
  • transfer – a property owner has the right to sell, donate, transfer title, or otherwise dispose of his ownership stake.
  • exclusion – a property owner has the right to decide who is allowed to access the property, for how long, and under which circumstances.

The responsibilities of property ownership include but are not limited to:

  • taxes and fees – becoming a property owner means accepting the responsibility for paying state and local taxes, fees, and other costs pertaining to being a property owner. These may include property taxes, title transfer fees, homeowner’s insurance, excise taxes, levies, and improvements.
  • Maintenance – owners of properties must keep the accessible portions of the property in good working order, particularly those that a person entering the property can reasonably expect to encounter such as walkways, steps, porches, and railings. Owners are liable for injuries caused by a lack of maintenance.

Loss of Rights

Purchasing property is just the first step in ownership. Keeping a property, whether it’s developed or in its natural state, requires more than a one-time payment for ownership. Failure to do so could result in losing property rights to ownership. An owner usually secures the property in some way, by limiting access, marking the boundaries, and fencing where appropriate, to forestall adverse possession. If a mortgage is involved in the purchase, it’s likely the owner will be required to buy homeowner’s insurance. Other non-negotiable fees are also involved, such as betterments required by a municipality for things like water and sewer service. You can find someone's property ownership information by using property records.

Adverse Possession

Adverse Possession

When a neighbor makes a habit of using a portion of another person’s property, such as for a driveway, the owner must put a stop to it or he could lose that portion of the property in a legal case. Often times neighbors will infringe on another person’s property unknowingly, by building over the lot line or by habitually using a portion of property. If this open use of another person’s property is not accompanied by a rent payment and is not discontinued by the owner of the property then the trespasser may file for ownership of that land after a period of 7 to 20 years.

A case in Iowa showed that no ill intent needs to be present to win an adverse possession case. In that situation a couple regularly used a portion of a property as their own, caring for it and putting two carports on it. When a new owner moved in next door and had his property surveyed, he discovered that the couple’s carports were on land he owned. A court denied his attempt to take title (“quiet title”) and approved the couple’s adverse possession counterclaim.

Eminent Domain

When a government pursues a project “for the greater good” it may take properties that are in the way. This happens frequently for highway expansion or other major projects but can be construed to include “public benefit” projects such as demolishing a derelict home for a public park.

In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case, Kelo v. City of New London, in which the petitioner, a homeowner in New London, Connecticut, sought to block an eminent domain taking of her property and give it to a private developer, arguing that this use of eminent domain was not a public project that was necessary. The court sided with the city and the Connecticut Supreme Court, which had held that eminent domain can be exercised in such a situation because the redevelopment project was aimed at a public benefit. The homeowner had complained that the city was simply after higher revenue than her tax payments.