What Is a Title?

Legal title to real property means ownership of the property. You may think of title as a legal document representing ownership, like title to a car. But title to real property isn’t represented by a document. Title to real property is a legal status. If you’re the legal owner of real property, you own the title.

People rarely own perfect, complete title to real property. Almost all real property titles are subject to various interests belonging to other people. Typically the owner’s interest in real property is subject to things like the following:

  • Covenants: A restrictive covenant gives up some of the owner’s right to use and enjoy property. A covenant is a promise that the owner (or the owner’s predecessor in title) makes to someone else about how she’ll use the real property. The owner still owns the property, but she can’t use the property contrary to her promise.

    For example, a restrictive covenant may promise that the owner won’t use the property for purposes other than a single-family residence.

  • Mortgages: A mortgage essentially gives another party some of the owner’s right to transfer the property. A mortgage is the right to sell the property and apply the sale proceeds to an unpaid debt that the mortgage secures. The owner still owns the property, but she’s given away part of her right to transfer the property.

  • Easements: An easement gives up some of the owner’s right to exclude others from the property. An easement typically is a right to use someone else’s land in some way. So the owner still owns the land, but she can’t exclude the easement holder from using her land as granted by the easement.

    For example, the easement holder may have the right to use a road across the owner’s land.

Even if an owner doesn’t own perfect and complete title to property, she still owns the title. Some titles are just subject to more rights belonging to other people. Such rights belonging to others may be called title defects, because they’re flaws or limitations in title.

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