ASK THE EXPERT

Q. I recently came across the term “lien.” What does it mean, and what other obscure legal terms can you encounter during the course of a property transaction?

A. Ah, the wonderful world of property-related legal jargon – a source of endless fascination!

In the simplest terms, a lien is an informal equitable charge over some of the proceeds of a sale – informal in the sense that the holder of a lien does not automatically have the right to force a sale in order to receive the money he or she is owed. Examples would include agent’s and solicitor’s fees, which are normally paid out of the funds remaining upon completion of the sale.

Another great bit of jargon is “curtilage.” This basically means the legal boundary of a property – which may or may not be the same as the physical boundary, such as the fences or walls. In the case of riverside properties, for example, the curtilage may be in the middle of the stream, or even on the far bank – in which case the owner will enjoy so-called “riparian” rights (i.e. the right to fish, use a boat, or extract water).

Then there is that wonderful old term “easement.” Rather disappointingly, this is not another name for an outside loo. Instead, an easement is actually a legal right which the owner of one property may have over another. So, for example, an easement may give you a right of way over your neighbour’s land in order to maintain a boundary wall – in which case, it may be written into the neighbour’s deeds as a covenant in your favour.

Lastly – at least for this week - we come to “tenants in common” and the completely unrelated “tenant at will.” The former expression refers to the normal state of affairs when you buy a property with a partner. It means that you own the whole property jointly – so that if either one of you dies, the surviving partner automatically inherits the lot. The term tenant at will, meanwhile, applies to cases where a special agreement allows the incoming owner of a property to take possession before completion. This will normally be for a specified purpose – for example, in order to undertake important remedial work required by the lender.