If You Own Land, How Far Above and Below Do You Own?

Guy C. asks: I live in America and was just wondering how far below and above my land do I own?

house-2On paper, the concept of land ownership sounds very simple- you pay money and in return you’re given unfettered access to a predetermined amount of land. But how much of that land do you actually own? Do you own the sky above it? How about the land below it? What about all the animals that may live there; do you own those too?  All of these questions and more define what exactly it means to “own” a piece of land.  Surprisingly, many of the answers aren’t well defined from a legal standpoint as you’ll soon see.

(Note: The laws governing one’s rights as a landowner vary considerably depending on location, even within a given country or state.  With that caveat noted, we’ll endeavor to answer the above questions and a couple more in the general case for places like the United States and the UK.)

First of all, let’s deal with how much of the air above your property you own since that particular question has been one of the more common queries about owning or buying land we’ve received here at Today I Found Out over the years. Historically speaking, if you owned a piece of land, you owned everything both above and below the soil from the deepest reaches of the Earth right up to the heavens themselves, giving you a near infinite amount of property in the universe with your property ever changing as the Earth rotates and the various celestial bodies move around.

A popular maxim in regards to this concept is, “Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos” which basically translates to: “whoever owns the soil, holds title all the way up to the heavens and down to the depths of hell“. 

Within the legal world, this maxim is described as “the traditional starting point of property law” and it is considered to have been instrumental in shaping what we understand as property law today. Curiously, despite its ancient sounding nature, the specific maxim can only be traced as far back as the 13th century and it is largely believed to have been the brainchild of Italian scholar, Accursius. It’s commonly assumed that the maxim made its way into English and subsequently American law thanks to Accurius’ son, who was invited to England to teach law at the request of the then King, Edward I. 

Its first use in court is attributed to the case of Bury V Pope in 1587, during which the maxim was cited as justification for a large structure being erected that blocked out the natural light to another property owner’s home. Since back in those days there was no such thing as the “right to light” (essentially the right to not have the flow of natural light to your home impeded), it was decided that the building of the structure was entirely legal, since the owner of the land owned all of the air above his land too.

Today, the maxim is still used as a guideline. However, as a property owner you only really have the right to the airspace above your land located in the lower stratum, the precise boundaries of which are not explicitly labelled. In the end, you are supposed to be entitled to enough airspace to reasonably enjoy the land below that air. However, exactly what this means is up for debate. For example, you can’t ask commercial planes to stop flying over your house, because the sky is considered to be a public highway.  You could potentially, however, prosecute an overzealous news helicopter for hovering over your house if it was impeding your enjoyment of the land. Again, this would vary on a case-by-case basis but there have been instances of people being fined for trespassing for flying over someone’s land; so it’s not unheard of in US or British law.

The most famous case of this kind comes from 1945 when a chicken farmer named Thomas Lee Causby sued the US government for flying approximately 83 feet above his property, the noise of which caused a bunch of Causby’s chicken’s to accidentally kill themselves by running into walls. Causby won his case and the courts agreed that although a property owner wasn’t entitled to own all of the air above their land, they were entitled to enough so that planes flying overhead wouldn’t kill their chickens. Progress!

Today in the UK thanks to the Civil Aviation Act of 1982, the generally accepted amount of air above one’s roof a person is entitled to is approximately 500-1,000 feet, though again this isn’t a hard definition.  Likewise, the United States has a similar estimation of about 500 feet, though this has never been officially ruled on by the Supreme Court.

In both cases, this may be soon changing with the widespread introduction of drones, both personal, commercial, and those owned by the respective governments.  As such, the U.S. federal government particularly has recently been looking into significantly lowering the airspace “public highway” floor to accommodate this type of aircraft.

With that out of the way, what about the earth below your land? Well, again, this varies because owning land doesn’t necessarily mean you own the mineral rights to it. In a nutshell, the owner of the respective mineral rights to a piece of land is entitled to those substances that could potentially be sitting below a given property and it’s not uncommon for them to be sold separately to land and property rights. And there have been cases in the past of home-owners finding out that there is a huge deposit of gas under their home that they don’t have rights to, and have no right to stop the owner of the mineral rights drilling for.  Beyond the loss of money from that gas if you didn’t own the mineral rights, this can sometimes kill any property value your land may have previously had.

However, if you own both the land and all the mineral rights to a property and you live in the US, everything below the ground belongs to you, unless you happen to stumble on an Indian burial ground or something, in which case you have to report it.

Other than that, practically everything is fair game, you can drill for oil and gas or even mine, assuming you have the relevant permits, and anything you find is yours to sell or keep. However, if something below the ground of your property extends to the property of someone else, like a pool of oil or vein of gold, they have an equal claim to the portion of the material on their side of property line. This can get messy very quickly since determining exact boundaries underground is difficult and costly, unless you live in the UK, in which case, the Crown has first dibs on all coal, oil, silver, gas and gold found on public or private property.

It should also be noted that in the United States, thanks to compulsory integration, gas companies potentially have the right to drill under your land from an adjacent property if they have leased or been deeded a certain percentage of land surrounding your land, with this percentage varying from state to state.

As for how much of the land below your property you own, there’s no real limit enforced by courts and there have been cases of people being prosecuted for trespassing on other people’s property for digging even in the thousands of feet below the ground in the search for oil. Of course, in reality there is a practical limit in that if there is a country on the other side of the world from your land, it’s probably not one where your country has jurisdiction.  Further, there is the matter of the giant layer of magma inbetween.  But beyond that, you can generally dig away to your heart’s content as long as you’re not breaking any environmental laws and have the appropriate permits.

If you happen to live next to water, your rights again, vary greatly depending on the exact situation and it’s covered by a totally different set of laws and rules called, riparian rights. If you have a stream or the like running through your land, in Britain you’re entitled to fish while they’re in the water on your land, but you can’t do anything that would impede the flow of water to other people’s land since all running water eventually flows into the public ocean. Likewise, if navigable water flows across, through or otherwise near your property, you’re not allowed to do anything that would upset its natural course since the ground beneath all navigable water is owned by the state, so the public can use it freely.

If your property borders a large body of water, on the other hand, in general you have the right to access the water and if you so wish, construct a pier or wharf. However, you have no right to stop people using the water for navigational purposes and your rights to the land beneath the water, if any, only extends to a reasonable level of depth which has never been precisely defined.  If you happen to own a chunk of non-navigable water, that’s generally yours to do with as you please (barring breaking any environmental laws).

As for animals, you cannot claim ownership of any wild animals on your land; you are, however, allowed to hunt them if they’re not endangered. Trees, plants and fruit, on the other hand, are yours to do with as you please as long as the plant was originally planted or seeded on your land.

If your neighbour owns any plants or trees that overhang onto, or the roots spread out under, your property, you’re within your rights to trim them back (even the roots) as long as doing so wouldn’t kill the plant. However, the original owner still has the rights to any cuttings and can request that they be returned after you’ve cut them off. The same can be said for any fruit that happens to grow on the tree. So, technically, taking fruit from such a branch hanging on your property is theft.

However, any leaves that fall off of the tree are your problem to deal with, unless they cause damage to your property (for example by blocking up your gutters, or in the case of roots, growing into your septic drainage field or damaging your house foundation) in which case, you can ask your neighbour to pay for the damage and if they refuse, you can sue and will likely win.

In short, if you own a piece of land, you may own more than you’d expect, but in a lot of cases, perhaps less of it than you might wish.

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  • I undertsand you can have the right to build a pier – but you do not have the right to the water as if it is tidal your property would be constantly changing. The same as beach front. Do not let that dipwad who puts a rope down his property line, presumably, on a beach because you can’t own a beach for the same reason

  • Most informative, thanks

  • Christopher Douglas

    Three observations:

    1. Unlike most states, if you own beach property in Maine, you own to the low water mark, enabling you to have a private beach.

    2. A friend owns a house on a river in Tennessee at a popular weekend get-away spot. She tells me that owns to the middle of the river, although there is a right of way for public boat traffic.

    3. I wish you had addressed the air-rights issue in New York City, where property owners have rights to considerably higher than 500 feet. Saint Thomas Church (at 5th Ave. and 53) just sold “part” of their air-rights to a neighboring builder for many millions of dollars, even though the builder isn’t building directly above the chruch.

    • Interesting. As usual I should have prefaced WHERE as most laws very from state to state. MD is where I was speaking of. I believe the OBX in NC is the same. Even more interesting, at the OBX if your house gets knocked down by a hurricane and the beach erodes to where you can no longer rebuild, then your lot is forfeit and ownership reverts to the gov’t.

  • My question is this: If there are drones flying over your house and you own a reasonable amount of land, can I shoot them out of the sky with my shotgun?

    • That’s a great question. You’re not the only one who’s asking it! There will be a lot of those nasty little spy gadgets coming down. People near where I live will never let those corporations fly in the guise of “amazon” deliveries while spying for the government. They don’t even tolerate those little google spy cars intruding on our communities. We were out in a single track lane in hereford and saw one nosing around on private property. The corporations (who work for the government already, in return for paying no taxes) will be collecting wireless data from personal property while they’re up there too. And obviously every one will have a camera (whether they admit to them or not) so they’ll be photographing people and property on every place they fly over. They’ll be checking car ownership and legal status, tax info, MOT status, issuing tickets, sending little bully boys round to collect “overdue parking fines”. Of course they’ll be some legislation as most of the corporations who produce and profit from drones are conservatives, who don’t believe in privacy for anyone who is not a multi-millionaire, so they’ll try and force us to accept it. This violation of our rights to peace, quiet and privacy has gone far enough. Stealing phone data and emails and goggle sending their little camera cars around back streets endangering people and destroying privacy is one thing, but sending drones over my place … we’ll see.

      • No one cares what some irrational person perceives as a threat. It must be a credible threat as determined by reasonable people of sound mind. Or at least that’s what the US supreme Court has determined.

        Your comment is exactly why we have laws on the books which protect the good citizens of our nation from the irrational fears of mentally unstable people with a propensity towards paranoia who perceive threats everywhere they look. Unfortunately, laws can’t protect our society’s technological advancement from people with a propensity towards paranoia which results in the technological advancement of our society being impeded .

        People like you are nothing new, Since the dawn of mankind, civilization has been forced to deal with the irrational paranoia of individuals who fear things they don’t not understand and thus hinder the advancement of our societies. Just like the men who feared fire and who opposed cooked food, and those after them who opposed the first motorized vehicles and those after the who opposed and feared the first flying machines.

        Just like those examples mankind will look back in a few 100 years and laugh their ass’s off at irrational fears and paranoid delusions of those short sighted and weak minded individuals who feared the tiny semi-autonomous robotic toys known today as quadcopters.

        I take this somewhat personal as I worked for the Air Force back in the 70’s, I am one of the few engineers who has been lucky enough to see his hard work in developing military technology transition into the consumer market for the whole world to enjoy.

        I’m part of the team which developed the very first dedicated autonomous and semi-autonomous drones, Drones very similar to the toys and hobby aircraft available today. I was specifically in charge of developing the automated flight control and telemetry systems, these systems are the predecessor to what makes these quadcopters fly today. It’s all very amazing technology with far-reaching potential. 30 years ago toys like this would have been marveled at nowadays they are the targets of the paranoid irrational fears of people who would have us living like cavemen if they had their way.

        Of course, back then everything was much larger and much more expensive, not to mention top secret. The largest drone we had utilized 6 rotors and had an individual rotor spans of 48 inches. This gave it a massive payload capability. Thanks to a fuselage which acted similarly to a flying wing at high speed depending on payload it had a range of over 1500 miles and a still classified maximum ceiling.

        It used a single power plant with drive shafts and gearboxes and it used collective pitch aka “constant speed rotors” instead of the variable speed motors used on the small toy drones of today. Like I said the fuselage became a flying wing at high speed giving it amazing range, only one was ever built. The smallest had three 12 inch rotors was semi-autonomous and depending on camera platform only had a range of about 300 miles. being semi-autonomous they were very easy to control, in fact so simple to fly that anyone could learn basic flight control within a matter of minutes.

        It never fails to amaze how certain people fall victim to their own irrational fears which cause them to perceive danger everywhere they look. This type of mental illness represents the greatest threat to man’s technological advancements. Can you imagine what life would be like if those who feared the camera stealing their soul got their way and cameras were banned?

        Many people with this type of mental illness still exist some in this country but the vast majority live in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan and it’s the primary reason these 3rd world countries exist the way that they do. You have to ask yourself do you really want the United states to devolve into an Afghanistan where paranoia and religion control the technological and educational advancement of our nation. Once again all one needs to do is look towards Iraq and Afghanistan to see the end results of that endeavor.

        Don’t buy into all the delusional rants of the paranoids. If the government wants to spy on you they don’t need a hobby drone they now have satellites which are far more powerful. In fact, it was satellites that killed the multi-rotor camera drone project that I was working on for the air force. After the short-range, multi-rotor camera drone project was canceled I was transferred over to fixed wing long-range drone project.

        The bottom line is the only real threat posed by these hobby Drones. Is the real possibility that the pilot could lose control of the aircraft after it’s control system has been disabled by a careless gun owner. There is a very real possibility that a disabled out of control drone could crash through the windshield of a moving vehicle which then could result in a serious accident, injury and even death ..

        Another real concern which the Faa has expressed is a scenario where a drone disabled by gunfire could remain flight capable but with a disabled control system, This gives way to the very real probability that an out of control aircraft could climb into commercial airspace, and collide with commercial air traffic possibly killing 100’s of people.

        Shooting at any flying aircraft is insanely stupid and those considering doing so should keep in mind the moment you shoot at any flying aircraft you become solely responsible for all property damage, deaths and injuries that result from that action.

      • Since when are Amazon and Google conservative?

    • If it’s just flying over and causing no problems, probably not. However, if u have livestock and it’s causing problems or the drone operator is a joker and is causing problems, you could probably get away with it once.

  • He didn’t fire his gun into the air. He fired it at the drone. If the idiots in KY are going to interpret the law as “he fired his gun in the air”, in this fashion, then all duck, goose, and any other avian hunting will instantly become illegal as will all trap and skeet shooting.

  • Where do mineral rights come from? Do I have to “stake a claim” with some government agency or do they come with the land unless a prior claim was made? Who would I ask to know if there is a claim?

  • Satan hasn’t paid rent for my part of Hell yet. What should I do?

  • “Mineral Rights” are recorded with deeds in county courthouses. They are handed down through families, bought, sold and leased just like any other property. They last for generations, but ownership is sometimes abandoned or reverted to original owners within the written instruments.

  • When owning land in the country, does your land start from the center of the road or from the edge of the road? I know that you have to give the county some easements for water lines etc… but would the land along the road be the land owners or county property?

  • Even though a lot of people always state that they can do whatever they want on their property since they own it, this never seems to be the case. I knew that all laws of the region you live in need to be followed, but I didn’t know that these laws can extend all the way to things like the amount of natural light that exists on your property. I think a lot of problems like the law cases you mentioned can just prevented with common sense.

  • You own enough air high enough above you so that no one can impede your lawful enjoyment of your land. So there. Keep your drones off my land-air w/o my permission.

    • I think it is reasonable to expect that someone does not use or allow their quadcopters to unreasonably disturb others regardless of who’s property it is. I say unreasonably because during daylight hours we expect to hear neighbors making noise. I would not be offended if a neighbor was flying their radio controlled toy in the sky and it was flying over my property. I feel the same about powered paragliders and ultralight aircraft.

      I have neighbors that race them all through the sky and they fly for hundreds of feet in all directions at what looks to be about 50 to 100 feet off the ground. I never hear them when I go in the house and they do not run them at night. The neighbors are also not hovering around as if they are spying on people so I guess I cannot find a reason to be concerned. Besides I always see the dad and kids out there having fun so who could be upset about that?

      The FAA came out and said they regulate all airspace that is not in contact with the ground all the way up to space and we as citizens cannot tell others who can and cannot use that space. I do believe that if someone is interfering with our quality of life then we have a right to ask them to modify their hobby so that it does not affect me, but I do not believe that I have the right to demand anything, that is what courts are for.

    • You liberals are afraid of everything.

      • Me? A liberal? Snicker giggle. Send your drone over my house and my Winchester 870 Shotgun will demonstrate my “liberalism”.

  • To all the scared liberal drone haters on here, one day you will fly one and understand why they are so flippin fun.

  • Have no problem with a drone flying over my property, when it is being used for nefarious purposes esp with a camera attached then it is going to quickly become a mangled pile of plastic and circuits. My home, my land and anyone or anything on it uninvited or without good reason will be dealt with as i see fit.

  • author should mention that we are renting land. The owners are the ones that we pay our property usage taxes to.