What Rights Do Property Owners Have?

Young couple dangling keys in front of their new home
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While a man's home may be his castle, he doesn't necessarily to have the right do whatever he pleases inside or outside it. State and municipal laws vary on what is legal and appropriate use of property, so a new homebuyer should look into the laws before doing something that could get him into trouble with the zoning officer.


Bundle of Rights

The expression "bundle of rights" refers to the rights that come with ownership of property. The bundle gives the property owner the right to sell, lease, or give the property away, as well as to live in it, control it, use it, and enjoy it. The term arises because the rights resemble a bundle of sticks, with each stick standing for a single right. The term "fee simple title" refers to the property of someone who owns all the rights.


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Real Estate vs. Real Property

Real estate is the land and everything on it, including structures. It includes things that exist naturally, such as timber and minerals, as well as objects added by people, such as roads and buildings. Real property describes the rights and benefits that go together with ownership of physical real estate, and includes the bundle of rights that come with owning real estate. For example, a property owner could sell or lease mineral rights but hold on to the right to use the area above ground.


Government Restrictions

All real properties are subject to the governmental powers of taxation, eminent domain, police power and escheat. Municipal governments have the right to establish taxes to cover local and school budgets. Eminent domain allows federal, state and local governments to take private property and compensate the property owner. Police power describes the right of state and municipal governments to make laws that benefit their communities by establishing regulations regarding health, safety, welfare and morals. Escheat is the power of the state to take over property that has no owner, such as a case in which the owner has died without a will designating who should get the property.


Land Use and Zoning

Municipalities control use of properties as well as future growth and development by preparing master plans and creating land-use laws that support the master plan. These master plans establish districts dedicated to residential, commercial and industrial use. In those designated districts, only specific types of development can be built, such as factories, schools, office parks, or single-family and condominium homes. Zoning laws implement the master plan, spelling out such details as setbacks, building density, placement of streets and utilities, signs in commercial areas, and historical designations. Developers' plans must conform to those ordinances.


Property Owners vs. Zoning Laws

In most municipalities, a planning board hears development applications. Those boards must test applications to ensure that they conform to the zoning laws and master plan. Whether the property owner wants to add a deck to his house or build a giant shopping mall, his plans must adhere to the laws. These zoning laws often conflict with the property owner's right to use his property as he wishes. Municipalities set up boards, usually called zoning boards of adjustment, to hear the appeals of property owners seeking variances or waivers of zoning laws for a specific purpose. If a property owner is using his property in ways that conflict with town ordinances, a zoning compliance officer can sign a complaint.