When you buy land, you might assume that your property rights give you ownership of everything below your feet. That's not always the case, though. While you have surface rights, someone else may have mineral rights to its metals, oil, natural gas, and other commodities.
If you currently own land, then you may need to have someone research its previous ownership rights to determine whether you own the mineral rights or not. Ideally, though, you will know your surface rights and mineral rights before you buy land.
Owning Land Doesn't Always Mean You Own What is in the Land
When surface and mineral rights get separated, you need to know it affects your property and ownership.
Surface Property Rights
Surface rights only apply to the surface of the land. When you purchase a piece of property, you always get surface rights for the plot of land. Surface rights do not apply to anything below the surface of the property.
Mineral and Oil Rights
Mineral rights apply to ownership of anything below a property's surface. It often refers to more materials than minerals like copper, gold, and silver. It can also refer to oil and gas rights.
When someone owns mineral rights, they get to access and harvest commodities below the land's surface. Drilling, mining, and other harvesting options often disrupt the surface. That may not seem fair to the person who buys property. Still, the owner of mineral rights can, within reason, make changes to the surface while accessing sub-surface minerals.
In some cases, companies can access commodities without disturbing the surface. For example, a company may use horizontal drilling to extract oil and gas from the land.
Leasing and Selling Mineral Rights on Your Land
It's possible to earn money by leasing or selling your land's mineral rights. In 2013, landowners made about $22 billion from their mineral rights.
When selling mineral rights, you give someone or a company absolute ownership of the commodities in your land. Unless you have the opportunity to repurchase the rights, your property rights will never include ownership of oil, coal, and natural gas. Depending on the terms of your sale, you may get a lump sum from the buyer or receive a percentage of the money earned when the owner sells the oil, natural gas, or other commodity.
Some people assume that leasing their mineral rights gives them more advantages than selling the rights. The benefits and disadvantages depend on the terms that you and the other party reach.
After you lease mineral rights, the new owner may extract everything of value. If that happens, then you may lose future opportunities to make money from the mineral rights. Leasing can also mean that you don't get any money unless the new owner finds and makes money from commodities in your land.
By leasing, you get your mineral rights back after a determined amount of time. You also run the risk of making less money and losing the opportunity to earn money from the land in the future.
Things to consider before selling or leasing mineral rights include:
- How it will affect your taxes.
- How accessing the minerals, oil, or natural gas will affect your land.
- Whether removing the commodities will make your land's surface sink.
- Whether drilling or digging will affect wildlife or water near your property.
- Clauses that define things like where drilling can occur and who will pay to repair any damage caused to the land's surface.
Before you agree to lease or sell rights, make sure to work with a qualified land consultant in your market who can refer you to a lawyer with plenty of experience in these areas. You will need an expert to explain the details and help guide your decision.
Ideally, You Should Know Your Property Rights Before You Buy Land
When you buy land, earlier property rights agreements still apply. If a previous owner sold the mineral rights, you are stuck with the conditions of that deal.
You can learn more about your rights before buying property by performing a title search or Mineral Rights Search. Plenty of title companies offer services that will help you understand your property rights.
It's important to remember that title searches don't always find all of the information relevant to your land. Some experts recommend assuming that you don't own mineral rights when you buy property. If anyone has sold the rights in the past, then you will not own the mineral, oil, gas, and other commodities beneath your feet. When land gets sold to dozens or even hundreds of different people, it's easy to miss an instance when one of those owners sold the rights.
If you want to buy a piece of land, start by finding a land consultant in your area who can give you accurate information about surface and mineral rights in your state. The rules in one area aren't always the same as those in other places.