Pitt Law Online Blog
Property Rights: An Overview of Property Rights in Law

Property Rights: An Overview of Property Rights in Law

Real estate agent and customer signing a contract

Property laws shape how we interact with our possessions and those of others. If you’re a homeowner, you can renovate your house and yard. You also have the right to sell or destroy your personal belongings, such as cars and smartphones. However, you can’t discard or sell someone else’s property without permission.

These rules are part of the broader framework of property rights in the United States. In our legal system, property owners are viewed as holding a “bundle of sticks,” each one representing a distinct type of right to their property.

This article explores types of property and the legal principles that govern property ownership in the United States.

Types of Property

There are several kinds of property with different legal considerations. Real property includes houses, land, and other types of real estate. This category also covers permanent improvements made to land, such as fences and landscaping.1

Tangible personal property refers to physical and movable possessions owned by individuals. Examples of personal property include clothing, furniture, electronics, and vehicles.2 Intangible property, on the other hand, covers valuable assets that you can’t see or touch, such as bonds, franchises, and stocks.3

Finally, intellectual property refers to creative ideas and inventions. This category includes artwork, characters, logos, music, slogans, patents, and other creations of the human mind.4

Ownership and Possession

People often use ownership and possession interchangeably, but they are distinct concepts. Ownership is a legal concept that grants individuals the bundle of property rights we discussed above. By contrast, possession refers to control over property and the right to use or occupy it.5

Individuals may own property without possessing it or vice versa. For instance, a renter takes temporary possession of an apartment, but the landlord remains the legal owner.

Legal Principles and Property Law

The American Constitution established property rights for all citizens. The Fifth Amendment specifies that the government cannot seize private property for public use without providing fair compensation.6 Additionally, the Fourteenth Amendment states, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”7

U.S. property laws also grant real estate owners these five rights.

Right to Possession

The owner or lessee of a property has the legal right to occupy and control this asset.8 For example, a tenant has the right to possession after signing an apartment lease.

Right to Use

Owners have the right to use their property as they see fit within legal constraints. You can live in or rent your house and plant a garden in your yard.

Right to Transfer

You have the right to transfer ownership of property by selling it, giving it to someone else or transferring it to an heir. You can sell your car at a price you set or give it to a family member as a gift.

Right to Exclude

The right to exclude allows the owner to prevent the use of their property by others. For instance, you can hang no trespassing signs and build a fence to keep strangers off your land.

Right to Destroy

Owners have the right to destroy property as long as they don’t violate laws.9 For example, you have the right to buy and smash a watermelon, but you don’t have the right to dump toxic waste on your property.

Titles and Deeds

Someone who "holds title" to land is the owner of that property and likely took title through a deed. A deed is a legal document used to transfer ownership between individuals.10 If you buy a house, you receive a deed as evidence that the former owner has given you the rights and title to the property.

Easements and Restrictive Covenants

Certain legal agreements can grant specific rights to property or limit usage.

An easement gives you the legal right to use someone else’s property for a pre-defined purpose.10 Your neighbor may give you an easement to use their driveway to access your property, but they retain full ownership of their land.

A restrictive covenant is a contractual agreement that limits how property owners use their land. Subdivisions may have restrictive covenants that dictate how property owners use community amenities and landscape their yards. Property owners can legally amend restrictive covenants in some states if they meet certain requirements, such as owning their home for 10 years.11

Leasehold and Rental Agreements

The American Apartment Owners Association defines a rental lease agreement as “a formal contract between a landlord (or property owner) and a tenant. It details the terms and conditions for the tenant to live in the rental property.”12 A lease may specify that the leaseholder needs to pay a security deposit and can’t have pets in the unit, among other requirements.

Landlords and tenants have legal obligations once they sign a lease. These requirements vary by state. For example, Delaware requires residential landlords to provide tenants with itemized lists of damages within 20 days of the expiration of the lease. Tenants must keep their rental units clean and not cause wanton damage.13

Intellectual Property Rights

Several legal frameworks protect the intellectual property rights of creators. Trademarks allow inventors to own the rights to specific words or designs, such as slogans and logos. Patents safeguard technical inventions, including engines and medications. Finally, copyrights give artists the exclusive right to distribute and reproduce artwork, books and other creative property.14

Future Trends in Property Rights

As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, property law faces significant changes. Technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming how property rights are recorded, transferred, and enforced. This digital revolution introduces a nuanced landscape for legal professionals and property holders alike, and will necessitate updated laws and regulations to accommodate new forms of property ownership and management.

Another future trend in property rights focuses on the growing global awareness of environmental issues. The concept of property rights will expand to include the stewardship of natural resources and the responsibilities associated with their use and preservation.

Learn the Fundamentals of Law with an Online MSL From Pitt Law

Property is one of the courses you will take as part of the core curriculum of the University of Pittsburgh’s Online Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program. This flexible, asynchronous program is designed for professionals looking to gain foundational knowledge in U.S. law and legal procedure without earning a traditional three-year J.D. degree.

Customize your master’s experience with a specialization that speaks to your interests and goals so that you can make moves in your career, both in earnings and responsibilities. Develop industry-specific expertise by choosing a specialization in Corporate Compliance, Health Care Compliance, Human Resources Law, International Business Law or Sports, Entertainment, and Arts Law.

Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor today to learn if the Online MSL is right for you.