In the common law, real property (or realty) refers to one of the two main classes of property, the other class being personal property (personalty). Real property generally encompasses land, land improvements resulting from human effort including buildings and machinery sited on land, and various property rights over the preceding.
The concept is variously named and defined in other jurisdictions: heritable property in Scotland, immobilier in France, and immovable property in Canada, United States, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malta, Cyprus, and in countries where civil law systems prevail, including most of Europe, Russia, and South America.
Estates & ownership interests definedThe law recognizes different sorts of interests, called estates, in real property. The type of estate is generally determined by the language of the deed, lease, or bill of sale through which the estate was acquired. Estates are distinguished by the varying property rights that vest in each, and that determine the duration and transferability of the various estates. A party enjoying an estate is called a "tenant."
Some important types of estates in land include:
- Fee simple: An estate of indefinite duration, that can be freely transferred. The most common and perhaps most absolute type of estate, under which the tenant enjoys the greatest discretion over the disposition of the property.
- Conditional Fee simple: An estate lasting forever as long as one or more conditions stipulated by the deed's grantor does not occur. If such a condition does occur, the property reverts to the grantor, or a remainder interest is passed on to a third party.
- Fee tail: An estate which, upon the death of the tenant, is transferred to his heirs.
- Life estate: An estate lasting for the natural life of the grantee, called a "life tenant." If a life estate can be sold, a sale does not change its duration, which is limited by the natural life of the original grantee.
- Leasehold: An estate of limited duration, as set out in a contract, called a lease, between the party granted the leasehold, called the lessee, and another party, called the lessor, having a longer lived estate in the property. For example, an apartment-dweller with a one year lease has a leasehold estate in her apartment. Lessees typically agree to pay a stated rent to the lessor.
A tenant enjoying an undivided estate in some property after the termination of some estate of limited duration, is said to have a "future interest." Two important types of future interests are:
- Reversion: A reversion arises when a tenant grants an estate of lesser maximum duration than his own. Ownership of the land returns to the original tenant when the grantee's estate expires. The original tenant's future interest is a reversion.
- Remainder: A remainder arises when a tenant with a fee simple grants someone a life estate or conditional fee simple, and specifies a third party to whom the land goes when the life estate ends or the condition occurs. The third party is said to have a remainder. The third party may have a legal right to limit the life tenant's use of the land.
Estates may be held jointly as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or as tenants in common. The difference in these two types of joint ownership of an estate in land is basically the inheritability of the estate. In joint tenancy (sometimes called tenancy of the entirety when the tenants are married to each other) the surviving tenant (or tenants) become the sole owner (or owners) of the estate. Nothing passes to the heirs of the deceased tenant. In some jurisdictions the magic words "with right of survivorship" must be used or the tenancy will assumed to be tenants in common. Tenants in common will have a heritable portion of the estate in proportion to their ownership interest which is presumed to be equal amongst tenants unless otherwise stated in the transfer deed.
Real property may be owned jointly with several tenants, through devices such as the condominium, housing cooperative, and building cooperative.
Jurisdictional peculiaritiesIn the law of almost every country, the state is the ultimate owner of all land under its jurisdiction, because it is the sovereign, or supreme lawmaking authority. Physical and corporate persons do not have allodial title; they do not "own" land but only enjoy estates in the land, also known as "equitable interests."
England and WalesIn the United Kingdom, the sovereign is held to be the ultimate owner of all real property in the realm. This fact is material one when, for example, property has been disclaimed by its erstwhile owner, in which case the law of escheat applies. In some other jurisdictions (not including the United States), real property is held absolutely.
English law has retained the common law distinction between real property and personal property, whereas the civil law distinguishes between "movable" and "immovable" property. In English law, real property is not confined to the ownership of property and the buildings sited thereon — often referred to as "land." Real property also includes many legal relationships between individuals or owners of land that are purely conceptual. One such relationship is the easement, where the owner of one property may enjoy the right to pass over a neighboring property. Another is the various "incorporeal hereditaments," such as profits a prendre, where an individual may have the right to take crops from land that is part of another's estate.
English law retains a number of forms of property which are largely unknown in other common law jurisdictions such as the advowson, chancel repair liability and lordships of the manor. These are all classified as real property, as they would have been protected by real actions in the early common law.
USAEach U.S. State except Louisiana has its own laws governing real property and the estates therein, grounded in the common law.
Economic aspects of real propertyLand use, land valuation, and the determination of the incomes of landowners, are among the oldest questions in economic theory. Land is an essential input (factor of production) for agriculture, and agriculture is by far the most important economic activity in preindustrial societies. With the advent of industrialization, important new uses for land emerge, as sites for factories, warehouses, offices, and urban agglomerations. Also, the value of real property taking the form of man-made structures and machinery increases relative to the value of land alone. The concept of real property eventually comes to encompass effectively all forms of tangible fixed capital. with the rise of extractive industries, real property comes to encompass natural capital. With the rise of tourism and leisure, real property comes to include scenic and other amenity values.
Starting in the 1960s, as part of the emerging field of law and economics, economists and legal scholars began to study the property rights enjoyed by tenants under the various estates, and the economic benefits and costs of the various estates. This resulted in a much improved understanding of the:
rights enjoyed by tenants under the various estates. These
include the right to:
- Decide how a piece of real property is used;
- Exclude others from enjoying the property;
- Transfer (alienate) some or all of these rights to others on mutually agreeable terms;
- Nature and consequences of transaction costs when changing and transferring estates.
Historical backgroundIn common law, real property was property that could be protected by some form of real action, in contrast to personal property, where a plaintiff would have to resort to another form of action. As a result of this formalist approach, some things the common law deems to be land would not be classified as such by most modern legal systems, for example an advowson (the right to present to the living of a church) was real property. By contrast the rights of a leaseholder originate in personal actions and so the common law originally treated a leasehold as part of personal property.
The law now broadly distinguishes between real property (land and anything affixed to it) and personal property (everything else, e.g., clothing, furniture, money). The conceptual difference was between immovable property, which would transfer title along with the land, and movable property, which a person would retain title to. (The word is not derived from the notion of land having historically been "royal" property. The word royal — and its Spanish cognate real — come from the unrelated Latin word rex, meaning king.)
In modern legal systems derived from English common law, classification of property as real or personal may vary somewhat according to jurisdiction or, even within jurisdictions, according to purpose, as in defining whether and how the property may be taxed.
Bethell (1998) contains much historical information on the historical evolution of real property and property rights.
References and further readingThe law of real property:
- Stoebuck, W. B., and Dale A. Whitman, 2000. The Law of Property, 3rd. ed. St. Paul MN: West Group Publishing.
- Thomas, David A., ed., 1996. Thompson on Real Property. Charlottesville VA: Michie Co.
Analysis of the law of real property:
- Ackerman, B., R. Ellickson, and C.M. Rose, 2002. Perspectives on Property Law, 3rd ed. Aspen Law and Business.
- Tom Bethell, 1998. Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages. St Martin's Press. For lay people.
- Robert Cooter, and Thomas Ulen, 2003. Law and Economics, 4th. ed. Addison-Wesley. Chpts. 4,5. Easier text.
- Ellickson, Robert, 1993, "Property in Land," Yale Law Review 102: 1315-1400.
- Richard Epstein, ed., 2007, Economics of Property Law. Edward Elgar. An anthology of articles, mostly from the law literature.
- Shavell, Steven, 2004. Foundations of Economic Analysis of Law. Harvard Univ. Press. Chpts. 2-5. Harder text; extensive references.
- Jeremy Waldron, 1988. The Right to Private Property. Oxford Univ. Press.
realty in German: Immobilie
realty in Spanish: Inmueble
realty in French: Immobilier
realty in Indonesian: Real property
realty in Dutch: Onroerende zaak
realty in Japanese: 不動産
realty in Russian: Земельное право
realty in Chinese: 房地產