The very foundation this nation is built upon is the ownership of property. It is one of the reasons our forefathers settled here in the first place. To insure private ownership of land, the nation’s founding fathers made it unlawful for government to own land except for the ten square miles of Washington D.C., and such as may be needed for erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings, right? Well…right? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The question is posed in tiny house threads from here to there. “How do I find land to park my tiny house on?” “It’s my land. They can’t tell me what I can put on it, right?” “What makes the government think they can tell me I can’t have a tiny house on my land?” “What states allow tiny houses on private property?” The list goes on. But the truth is that despite what even I would like to think, we may never truly own our land or any land for that matter.
To the idea that the government may not own land and that private citizens are the only one allowed to hold land grants or titles there are seemingly two very polar positions. One position, which is what is currently upheld by U.S. Supreme Court doctrine, is that the federal government may acquire and own any land it wants for any governmental purpose, not just for its enumerated (to mention separately as if in counting) powers. The other side to the coin is that the federal government may own land only for the purposes enumerated in the Enclave Clause (the national capital and “Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings” part). But wait. Maybe I am getting ahead of myself as I often do. What is land?
By definitionis not restricted to the earth’s surface. It is also not a mass of physical matter occupying a space. The tree that sits on “your land” does not define that spot as land. You can remove the tree and it is still “your land.” I think it is safe to say that ultimately land is simply an area of three dimensional space located by reference to the earth’s surface. It is immovable and indestructible. “The contents of the space may be physically severed, destroyed or consumed, but the space itself, and so the ‘land’, remains immutable.” 1
Here is the crux though. The term “my land” has absolutely no value nor any weight in the U.S. court system. Granted, all states charge some sort of real estate or property tax. (Real estate tax and property tax are the same thing. The IRS uses the term “real estate tax” whereas most people call it “property tax,” a term the IRS doesn’t recognize.) But those taxes can be considered equivalent to a rental or lease price. They are imposed on immovable property – land and structures that are permanently attached to the ground. See what a debacle this can become?
If you build a tiny house on wheels you are not subject to a property tax. That has long been an argument for tiny housers. But the moment you park that tiny house on a parcel of land that “you own” you owe real estate tax to your local government. But wait! At that point it is “your land”, right? Wrong. Choose not to pay that real estate tax one year and see what happens. If a property owner fails to pay the real estate tax assessed “their land”, the taxing jurisdiction has various remedies for collection, including seizure and sale of the property. Property taxes also constitute a lien on the property to which transferees are subject. So in essence, no matter if you “own” the land your tiny house is on or not you are subject to taxation, zoning restrictions and guidelines, and/or assessor commentary. It is a confusing situation but one that must be considered when shopping for land. Unfortunately purchasing a parcel of land does not mean you “own” the land; not today and not for the foreseeable future.
Have you ever thought about owning land? Do you see a benefit or do you consider it a waste of money and resource? How could we work through these obstacles?
1 Peter Butt, Land Law 9 (2nd ed. 1988) Reprinted in Black’s Law Dictionary, Seventh Edition