Real Property vs Personal Property: Types of Property, Chattels, Legal Distinction and Characteristics

What is the Difference between Real Property and Personal Property?

Real property refers to land and anything permanently attached to it, while personal property encompasses all movable and intangible assets.


Real Property vs Personal Property: The concept of property is foundational to many social, legal, and economic systems around the world. It represents the rights of ownership a person or entity has over things or resources. However, not all properties are created equal.

The most commonly referenced categories are land/real property and personal property. Understanding the distinction between these types of properties is critical for reasons ranging from taxation to legal disputes to real estate transactions.

Defining Real Property vs Personal Property

Real Property (Land)

  • Definition: Land or real property refers to the physical ground and anything attached, including buildings, structures, and natural resources such as minerals, water, and trees.
  • Characteristics: Immovable, finite (limited in quantity), unique (no two parcels of land are exactly alike), and it appreciates over time (generally, though there are exceptions).
Real Property vs Personal Property - real vs personal property - land vs personal property

Personal Property

  • Definition: Personal property (often called chattels) is everything that isn’t real property. This can include vehicles, furniture, jewellery, clothing, and intangible assets like patents or copyrights.
  • Characteristics: Movable, may be infinite (you can produce unlimited numbers of the same item), generally depreciates (loses value) over time, though there are exceptions like collectables and antiques.

Why the Difference between Real Property vs Personal Property Matters

Taxation: Many jurisdictions tax real and personal property differently. For instance, property taxes might be levied on the value of real estate but not on personal property, or they might be levied at different rates.

Purchasing & Selling: In real estate transactions, unless explicitly stated otherwise, fixtures (items that are permanently attached to land or buildings, like built-in shelving or central air units) are included in the sale of real property. Personal property items, like furniture, are not usually included unless they are specified in the sales contract.

Legal Disputes: Understanding whether an item is personal or real property can be critical in legal disputes, especially in cases of divorce, inheritance, or bankruptcy.

Loans and Mortgages: When taking out a mortgage to purchase real property, the land and any attached structures typically serve as collateral. On the other hand, personal property would be the collateral for a personal loan or a specific type of secured loan like a car loan.

How Does Taxation Differ Between Real and Personal Property?

Real property taxes are typically linked to physical land and structures, while personal property taxes are linked to movable or intangible assets, each with its respective assessment and rate parameters.

Real property is typically subject to property taxes, which local governments levy. The amount of property tax owed is usually determined by the property’s assessed value, which is periodically re-evaluated.

Factors influencing real property tax rates might include location, property improvements, and local governmental budgetary needs.

On the other hand, personal property encompasses movable items like vehicles, equipment, and some types of intangible assets. Personal property can be subject to personal property taxes, assessed based on the item’s value.

For example, cars might be taxed annually based on their make, model, and year. Intangible personal property, such as stocks or bonds, is usually exempt from personal property taxes but might be subject to other forms of taxation, like capital gains tax upon sale or inheritance tax upon transfer.

Grey Areas And Disputes In Real Property vs Personal Property

Disagreements often arise about whether certain items are personal or real property. For example, is a mobile home, which is movable, personal property or real property? What about an uprooted tree that has not yet been removed from a parcel of land?

The line between land and personal property can blur, and the classification often comes down to the intention of the parties involved, the permanence of the item’s attachment to the land, and local laws or regulations.

The differences between real property and personal property

AspectReal PropertyPersonal Property
DefinitionLand and things permanently attached to it, such as buildings and fixtures.Movable assets that are not permanently attached to land or buildings.
OwnershipOwnership is often referred to as “ownership of land” and involves the land itself, including its minerals and natural resources.Ownership is called “ownership of goods” and encompasses movable assets.
TransferTransferred through deeds, with formal registration often required.Transferred through bills of sale, contracts, or other methods, depending on the jurisdiction.
FixturesFixtures are items that were once personal property but have become permanently attached to the land or building, and therefore, they become part of the real property.This is not applicable, as personal property is not permanently attached to real estate.
ExamplesLand, houses, buildings, trees, minerals, and anything permanently affixed to the land.Furniture, electronics, clothing, vehicles, jewellery, and other movable possessions.
Ownership RightsOwners typically have a bundle of rights, including the right to use, sell, lease, mortgage, and exclude others from the property.Owners have rights to possess, use, and transfer the property, but these rights may be more limited than real property.
Legal ClassificationReal property is subject to laws and regulations, including zoning and land use regulations.Personal property is generally subject to less complex legal regulations than real property.
Inheritance and Estate PlanningInheritance of real property can involve more complex legal processes, such as probate.Inheritance of personal property can also involve legal processes, but they may be less complex than real property.
Attachment to LandFocuses on the land itself and the rights associated with it.Focuses on the movable possessions owned by individuals and entities.
Importance in LawHighly significant in real estate law, land use planning, and property rights.Significant in various legal contexts, including contracts, sales, and torts.
Investment and ValueReal property often holds significant investment value and can appreciate over time.Personal property can also hold value, but it might depreciate more quickly than real property.
The differences between real property and personal property (real property vs personal property)

Changing Classification In Real Property And Personal Property

There are also cases where personal property can become real property and vice versa:

Affixing: When you attach personal property to land to become a permanent part of the real property, this is called affixing. An example would be building a shed using raw materials.

Severance: Conversely, if you remove something from the land, making it no longer a part of that land, this is called severance. An example is cutting down a tree and turning it into lumber.

Are Portable Sheds Or Non-Permanent Structures (E.G. Mobile Homes) On Land Considered Real Or Personal Property?

Portable sheds and non-permanent structures like mobile homes generally start as personal property due to their movable nature. These structures are not permanently affixed to the land and can be relocated relatively easily.

However, the classification can shift based on certain factors. If the structure owner takes steps to affix it to the land—by laying a permanent foundation, connecting it to utilities, or removing its mobility features—it might be reclassified as real property.

The intent of the owner also plays a significant role in this determination. If the owner intends that the structure remains in place for an extended or indefinite period, it is more likely to be viewed as real property.

Additionally, local laws and regulations can influence this classification. For instance, in some jurisdictions, once a mobile home is affixed to the land and the wheels are removed, it may be considered real property for taxation and legal purposes.

Why Is The Distinction Between Real And Personal Property Important In Legal Cases Like Divorce or Inheritance?

The distinction between real and personal property is paramount in legal scenarios such as divorce or inheritance due to each property type’s differing rights, obligations, and values.

In divorce, assets are typically divided based on various considerations, including whether they are community or separate property. Real property, such as the family home or land, often represents significant financial and emotional value.

It is complex to decide who retains ownership, whether the property should be sold and profits divided, or if one party should compensate the other for their share.

On the other hand, personal property can range from vehicles to jewellery to bank accounts. The movable nature of personal property can sometimes make it easier to divide, but its sentimental or financial value might lead to disputes.

Inheritance scenarios present their challenges. A will might specify heirs for particular pieces of real or personal property. Without a clear distinction between the two, the execution of the will can become muddled.

Real property might have stipulations or liens attached, and inheritance might involve transferring deeds or settling outstanding mortgages. Personal property, especially intangible assets like stocks or copyrights, requires different transfer methods.

Conclusion: Real Property vs Personal Property

The distinction between real and personal property is deeply ingrained in legal and economic systems. The distinction may seem academic for everyday individuals, but it plays a crucial role when buying a house, determining tax liabilities, or resolving disputes.

Whether planning a real estate venture, drafting a will, or simply looking to understand better the world around you, a grasp of the real property vs personal property debate and its implications is invaluable.

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