Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: There is a property that I want to buy, but I just learned that there is a gas easement in the backyard. I have four questions about this : What is a gas easement? How should it affect my purchase decision? Should I be concerned about possible gas leaks or the safety of my children? And does a gas easement prevent me from building an addition onto the house? Neeta

Dear Neeta: A gas easement is a portion of someone’s private property, usually near one of the property lines, where the gas company or other utility service is permitted to bury their service lines and where they may occasionally need to do maintenance or repairs of one kind or another. Utility easements are very common and seldom raise problems or concerns for property owners. In fact, most people with utility easements on their properties are seldom reminded that the easement even exists.

As for safety, the likelihood that a gas easement in your back yard will pose a risk for children or anyone else is extremely remote. There is little chance that a gas leak will ever occur unless someone carelessly excavates the grounds and damages a gas line.

On the negative side, an easement on your property could limit your ability to enlarge the residence, depending on the required setbacks for building construction. The main thing to remember, however, is never to excavate or build near the easement without first notifying the gas company and obtaining their permission.

As you consider this aspect of the property, find out exactly where the easement is located and what limits this might place on your use of the property once you become the new owner. Some of these details will be included in the preliminary title report that you will receive from the title insurance company before you purchase the property. For further details, you should contact the gas company and the local building department.

Dear Barry: For the past 17 years, I have rented an apartment on the second floor of a 3-story building. Several months ago, the building department notified the owner that the ground floor, including the apartment directly below mine, is an illegally converted garage. Realizing that I have been living in an illegal building, I have two questions: Should I continue paying rent for my apartment? And am I entitled to recover the rents I have paid the landlord these many years? George

Dear George: There are two ways to view your questions: the legal perspective and the ethical one. Only an attorney can advise you regarding the legal viewpoint, but you should consider the ethical aspect before seeking any legal advice.

For 17 years you have enjoyed the use of your 2nd floor residence in exchange for the rent you agreed to pay. Until now, you apparently considered that to be an equitable arrangement. Why then would the legal status of the downstairs unit diminish the fairness or the value of that exchange? Do you truly believe that you have been harmed by the lack of a building permit for the downstairs apartments?