How to Determine Utility Accessibility Before You Build

Updated: Nov. 22, 2023

Shopping for land to build on? Be sure to educate yourself on the property's utility accessibility and easements before you buy.

Buying land to build a house or cabin is a big deal, and comes with many important considerations. Lot size and characteristics, soil composition, lakeshore type, road access and connectivity are just a few factors you should examine carefully when land shopping.

Equally important is utility access. Unless you’re planning to go completely off-grid on a remote parcel of land with no neighbors or towns nearby, you’ll need things like a domestic water supply, sewage disposal and a connection to the electrical grid.

Part of your job as a future land owner is determining the state of utility access on every lot you visit. Along with knowing how you’ll get utilities, you also need to understand your rights and responsibilities as a property owner. That’s where utility easements come in.

What Is a Utility Easement?

An easement is a few lines of legal jargon that gives someone other than you the right to do something on your property. One of the most common property easements is called a utility easement. It’s designed to give public or private utility companies the right to enter your property and install or modify equipment there, for the good of the community as a whole.

Utility easements allow workers from power, water and sewage disposal companies to enter certain parts of your property, dig things up, and remove or install things. These could be electrical or phone cables (although this is becoming increasingly rare, with less than 40 percent of U.S. households using landlines), water pipes, sewage pipes or other utilities.

The exact details of utility easements vary from one county and property to the next. That’s why it’s important to learn those details before buying.

Who Do You Contact With Utility Accessibility Questions?

The best way to learn the details of utility accessibility and easements on a property you’re considering is to examine the property deed at the local town hall or courthouse. Ask the clerk to point you in the right direction. You may need the current owner’s help accessing the documents, or they may already know the details of the easement situation and can simply tell you.

How Can a Utility Easement Impact a Building Project?

In practice, utility easements are a much bigger issue on small, urban-sized lots than larger rural properties. The reason boils down to available space and community needs. Because most rural properties don’t have access to municipally supplied water, sewage removal or privatized natural gas for heating, there’s no reason for utility easements to exist for these utilities.

That’s not to say rural properties have no utility easements. Even in the country, power companies can enter your property, trim trees, install new poles and dig up old power lines. The difference is, large rural lots give you a whole lot more space to build well away from the area set aside for an easement.

The downside of the rural setting is that you’re often on your own figuring out how to get water, heat your home and deal with sewage. If you’d rather pick a smaller property that’s closer to civilization, you’ll need to be more careful concerning utility easements.

Figure out exactly which part of the property the easement has set aside for a possible sidewalk, additional electrical poles or underground lines, water pipes and any other utility work. Don’t build there! Pick a spot well away from the designated easement area to start construction, so you and future owners of your new property won’t be disturbed or risk damage to one or more of your buildings.

Why Do Utility Easements Exist?

Utility easements might seem like a pain, or even an infringement on your rights as a property owner. Trouble is, there are more people in your community than just you. Utility easements exist to keep necessary utilities like water, electricity and waste removal as accessible and economical as possible for as many people as possible.

It would cost power companies considerably more to string power lines along the edges of every individual lot in a neighborhood, just to avoid crossing anyone’s land. Utility easements mean they can string power lines right through properties, taking a much more direct route to the homes that need power, and lowering electricity costs immensely in the process.

The same principle applies for other utilities. Easements might seem inconvenient, but on balance they’ll probably make life in your new home or cabin better.

Bottom Line

When scoping out a property to build on, learn the details of any utility easements associated with the land. Find out exactly what those easements will allow utility companies to do, then plan your purchase and building project accordingly.

It’s best to assume the allowances made in the easement will eventually come to pass. Even if they never do, build with the assumption they will protect you from nasty surprises in the future.