When evaluating the attractiveness of a piece of land, one important feature is whether or not it has access. Is it possible to legally drive to the land and put your feet on it? Or, as buyers have asked me a thousand times “would you have to take a helicopter to get to it?”
Many cities and counties will not allow construction on a parcel that lacks access. Also, lenders may refuse to write loans to purchase, or build on, landlocked property. Landlocked parcels have less value compared to parcels with access. For this reason, sellers will want to determine if a parcel is landlocked when pricing it and buyers want to understand the access situation when deciding whether or not to purchase it.
First, Just What is Access?
The most important thing to know about access is that there are two kinds: physical access and legal access. They are two different things. The fact that you can see a dirt road with your eyes does not mean that you have legal access. Further, even when legal access exists, there might be no visible road.
When a parcel has physical access, it is possible to drive in a car (or maybe a 4WD) on a paved or dirt road to reach the edge of the land.
When a parcel has legal access, this means that it is adjacent to an official street or there is a recorded easement across the neighbor’s private land for ingress and egress.
A parcel might have physical access but no legal access. That is, you can drive to the land on a “road” but the road is unofficial, and you are technically trespassing on private property when you do that.
A parcel might have legal access but no physical access. This occurs when there is a recorded easement for ingress and egress, but no one has put in a driveway or road yet. The access is on paper but not visible in the real world.
A parcel might have both physical and legal access. For example, the home you are living in almost certainly has both.
A parcel might have no physical access and no legal access. This means there is no visible road to the property and there is no recorded easement allowing access.
What is a Landlocked Parcel?
When I describe access to buyers, I use the word “landlocked” to mean a parcel has no legal access for ingress and egress. I focus on legal access rather than physical access because I consider it more important. If the terrain allows, you can always bulldoze a road, if you have legal access, that is.
Note that other Realtors and attorneys might use the word “landlocked” differently. This variation in usage makes understanding access confusing for buyers and sellers.
My Super Practical Approach to Evaluating Access
I am a Realtor, a land broker, not an attorney. Realtors are in the business of helping people buy and sell real property, such as land. Realtors are not in the business of giving legal advice about whether a client would have a good case in court if they wanted to obtain access to a landlocked parcel. I mention this because it’s important for you, as a reader, to consider who is writing any blog you read. My role as a Realtor affects how I think and communicate about access.
In my many years as a land broker, I have noticed that there are two main access-related things that affect a buyer’s willingness to purchase land: 1) whether there is a physical road going to the property, and 2) whether the title company will insure for access. Regarding the former, it doesn’t matter that much whether it is a paved road or a dirt road. As long as a buyer can drive on it to reach the land, it’s all good. Regarding the latter, buyers tend to be black and white in their thinking: Either the title company, a trusted information source, says they will not insure for access, or the title company says they will insure for access. If the title company says “no access”, buyers will inevitably fret about this. Then, either they will not purchase the land, or it will affect the price they will pay.
Sometimes when a title company says they will not insure for access, sellers will then make nuanced arguments about how they have a right to an “easement by implication” or an “easement by necessity”. Sometimes sellers will say they have an unrecorded “prescriptive easement”. For example, the California Association of Realtors defines a prescriptive easement as “created when the property owner claiming the easement can prove that he/she used the servient estate owner’s property openly, exclusively, adversely, and continuously for a period of at least five years.”
These arguments are all well and good, but sellers need to realize that a typical buyer will not be too impressed with such reasoning when a title company is telling them they won’t insure for access. When an easement is not recorded, the buyer has no assurance that the neighbor won’t dispute whether the easement exists, where it exists, how big it is, or how it is to be used. Seller arguments are just words, and words will not prevent a neighbor from building a garage or putting up a locked gate, blocking access and creating conflict. Even if the current neighbor is friendly and allows unrecorded access, buyers realize that the adjacent property could change hands to an unfriendly neighbor who will not allow access. Buyers understand that in the event that there is a dispute with a neighbor, they will probably have to hire an attorney. Attorneys are expensive, and the outcome of legal action is uncertain. Since there are other parcels buyers can purchase in the same area that have easy access, buyers generally decide they just don’t want the land bad enough to mess around with it. In short, Buyers who are paying a premium for the land, want to see either a road or a recorded easement on paper and a title report saying the title company will insure for access.
With that said, the good news for sellers is that landlocked parcels can totally be sold at some price. The reason I mention buyer’s black and white thinking about access is because a wise seller will want to take buyer’s attitudes into account when they price their land: If the title company will insure for access, price it higher. If the title company won’t insure for access, price it lower. Land sellers should adhere to these simple rules because buyers will instinctively follow them in making a decision whether or not to purchase. Logically, buyer demand should affect seller pricing.
So, this explains why I, as a Realtor, not an attorney, use the expression “legal access” in a highly simplistic fashion, to mean having a road or a recorded easement, and “landlocked” as having “no legal access”. When I use words in this way, I’m talking right now, not what could be arranged in the future after a legal battle. Realtors sell land “as is, where is”.
If you own a landlocked parcel and want to know whether you would have the legal right to obtain access in the future, that’s a different question and Realtors can’t get into the weeds with you on that. Direct those questions to an attorney.
Things You Can Do to Tell if a Parcel is Landlocked
Study the Plat Map
The plat map shows how a tract of land is divided into lots. It is drawn to scale and shows the land’s size, boundaries, nearby streets and rights of way. Locate the parcel on the map. Does it have a street running to it or alongside of it? If so, there is probably legal access.
Note that I am recommending that you study a plat map, not an aerial map or Google map. Aerial maps may show you physical access, e.g., a dirt trail leading to the land. However, as explained previously, that physical access may or may not be legal access. Google maps show named streets but, occasionally, a street named in Google will not be an official street. For these reasons, the map you want to focus on is the black and white plat map.
Order a Title Report
When I am in doubt about access, I find that the easiest way to get information is to order a title report. If there is legal access, the title company will almost always insure for access. If there is no legal access, they will not insure for access.
If the title company declines to insure for access there will be an item in the “exceptions” section of the title report that says something like “Lack of right of access to and from the land”. There, you have your answer.
If the title company decides they will insure for access, this item will be entirely absent from the title report. The title report will just remain silent on the subject and there will be no mention of access in the exceptions section. For example, if the parcel is clearly on a paved street the title company will insure for access but there will be no special paragraph saying, “we will insure for access because it’s on an official street”. To summarize, a report mentioning no access is bad news while a report saying nothing about access is good news.
Note that title companies sometimes make mistakes. There have been times that I was pretty sure there was legal access and the title company has declined to insure for access. Conversely, there have been times when I was fairly sure there was no access and the title company has indicated that they would insure for access. If this happens to you, point out the possible error to the title company. For example, if you observed a physical road and they are saying they won’t insure for access, send the title company photos of the road and ask them to reconsider the access question.
Order a Map of Plotted Easements
Easements are described in title reports. However, sometimes it’s hard to visualize their location. So, ask the title company to prepare a map of plotted easements. These helpful maps are usually color coded. Here is an example:
Not all easements are for access. Further, an easement recorded on the parcel will not help you in getting to it. So when ordering a map of plotted easements, be sure to tell the title company that you want them to plot not only the easements on the property, but also easements leading to it. Tell them that your goal is to understand access. The reason it’s important to specify this is that the access easement will be recorded on the neighbor’s land, not the land for sale, and the title company might overlook it if you don’t explicitly ask to see it.
More Things to be Aware of When Evaluating Access
A road is not always a road
Realtors often mention “roads” in their marketing. For example, they might write in the MLS something like “turn off of Hwy 101 onto the dirt road going the land.” It would be a mistake for buyers to assume that this dirt “road” is an official road, sanctioned by the city or county, and that the parcel has legal access. Sometimes this will be the case. Sometimes it won’t. In all likelihood, the Realtor observed a physical access road and has not checked to see if it is a legal access road, a recorded easement, or just a well-worn dirt path crossing private property. Realtors are usually just describing what they see with their eyes. Smart buyers will look into whether the access is legal. They will ask the title company, City, or County (not the Realtor).
Sometimes a road is a road, but it’s not enough of a road
Occasionally you will find a property with a road, you can see it with your eyes, and the title company even states that they will insure for access, however the municipality still won’t let you build! This is because the road, while legal access for a Mini Cooper, is too wimpy to allow big construction equipment and emergency vehicles such as fire trucks.
One time I was listing a residential parcel in a Los Angeles neighborhood that was notoriously crowded, with existing homes crammed together and crawling up the hills in search of light and air. The lot I was selling had a paved road going right past it, adjacent to the land, and winding up the hill from there. I could drive right up to the land in my car and the title company said they would insure for access.
The parcel had legal and physical access. The City, however, would not allow construction. Why? Because the road was too narrow to accommodate emergency vehicles. Complicating the situation, historic homes on this street were built so close to the road, there was no way it could be widened without slicing off part of someone’s living room. From this experience I learned that sometimes a road offers legal and physical access, so a parcel is technically not landlocked, but the road is still insufficient to build.
Street signs do not always mark true roads
If the street sign has an official-looking appearance, it almost certainly marks an actual street. Occasionally, however, you will see a handmade sign. A person who lives out there went into their workshop, created a sign, and pounded it into the ground. Sometimes a handmade sign does, in fact, mark a legal street. Other times, the locals just adopted a name for an unofficial road and posted their own sign. If the road is not official, that can mean no legal access. So look into it to see which it is.
Occasionally, even a street does not mean access
Once in a while, a parcel will be directly adjacent to a street or highway and yet there is still no effective access for ingress and egress! This is especially common when the artery is a major thoroughfare, like a highway or four lane road. Cars stream by the land at a high rate of speed. The transportation authority will not allow anyone to install a driveway off the major artery on to the land in question because it could create a traffic hazard. Sometimes the driveway can be installed with special permission after a review process. Until that permission is granted, however, the parcel is effectively landlocked, even though it is adjacent to an artery.
Locked gates can matter
A few years ago, I was selling a piece of privately-owned land near a City water supply. There was a big water holding tank at the top of a hill on land. A dirt access road lead from an official paved street to the water tank and went right through the land that I was selling. This dirt access road appeared on the tax assessors plat map and so seemed to be legal access. However, the City had placed a big locked gate adjacent to the paved road, blocking the entrance to the dirt water supply road. The City would not give my client, the seller, a key.
A buyer for this parcel wanted to figure out if there was legal access. To get an answer, I asked the title company if they would insure for access. I emailed the title company a photo of the access road and locked gate. I thought they would see the road on the map and see the same road in the photo and insure for access. Surprisingly, the title company said no! The gate, locked by the City, was the reason.
The way the story ended is that the buyer was aware of all of this and bought it anyway. Then he hired a good attorney to take the City to court because they were impeding access to his land. Once that gate is opened, the title company will insure for access and the land will be worth much more.
No trespassing signs do not always mean there is no legal access
When I’m listing a parcel for sale that has a legally recorded easement for access, sometimes I will drive up to the land only to discover a “No Trespassing” sign. These signs are usually posted by a neighbor who lives in a house nearby. The neighbor’s house is surrounded by vacant land. The neighbor doesn’t own the surrounding parcels, but he figures that there’s no good reason for anyone to be sniffing about near his property.
It is common for neighbors to treat land near their house like they own it, even when they don’t. I find that few people understand the concept of an easement and the neighbor may be unaware that there is one. So, the bottom line for a potential buyer in this situation is yes, there is an easement, but no, the neighbor will not be happy to learn about it. Also, in general, no, the seller does not know the neighbor personally and, no, the seller is not going to talk to the neighbor about access. Buyers who encounter no trespassing signs should anticipate that they may have some work in front of them communicating with the neighbor and will want to take this into account when deciding whether or not to purchase.
Determining access is usually pretty straightforward. Most of the time you can look at the plat map and order a title report and you will have your answer. Other times, understanding access can be tricky. Sellers should consider ease of access when pricing their land and buyers should investigate access thoroughly before purchasing.