Real Property vs. Personal Property: Know the Differences

Understanding the difference between real property and personal property is crucial, whether you’re purchasing a home, drafting a will, or negotiating a lease.

This distinction has implications for taxes, estate planning, and property rights. Let’s dive into the primary differences and why they matter.

Defining Real Property

Real property, often referred to as real estate, includes land and anything permanently attached to it. This can encompass buildings, homes, and natural resources like minerals or water.

Permanent Improvements

One of the primary indicators that something is considered real property is its permanence.

For instance, if you build a shed or install a swimming pool on a piece of land, these structures are generally seen as “permanent improvements” to the land. As a result, they typically become part of the real property.

Natural Resources

Natural resources, such as minerals, oil, or gas found beneath the land, also fall under real property.

If you own land with these resources, you may have the right to extract and sell them, unless rights have been previously sold or are restricted by local laws.

Understanding Personal Property

On the flip side, personal property consists of items that are not permanently attached to land or buildings.

These can be tangible items like furniture, vehicles, or jewelry, or intangible items like stocks, bonds, and intellectual property rights.

Tangible Personal Property

Tangible personal property refers to physical items that can be moved from one location to another.

If you purchase a washing machine for your home, it remains personal property unless it is built into the structure in such a way that removing it would damage the property.

Intangible Personal Property

Intangible items don’t have a physical form but still represent ownership of value. Examples include copyrights, patents, stocks, and bonds.

While these don’t have a physical presence like land or a car, they are still considered personal property.

Transitioning Between the Two

At times, personal property can become real property and vice versa. This transition often depends on how an item is used or attached to land.


A classic example is the concept of “fixtures” in property law. A fixture begins as personal property but becomes part of the real property when attached in a way that suggests it’s intended to be permanent.

Consider a chandelier: if it’s sitting in a box, it’s personal property.

But once it’s installed and hanging from the ceiling of a home, it generally becomes a fixture and, therefore, real property.


Conversely, when an item is “severed” or removed from land or a building with the intention of making it separate property, it transitions from real to personal property.

For instance, if a tree is cut down and turned into lumber, that lumber becomes personal property.

Why the Distinction Matters

Understanding whether something is real or personal property is essential for several reasons.


Property taxes are typically levied on real property.

In contrast, personal property can be subject to its own set of taxes, depending on the jurisdiction. Knowing the classification can help property owners understand their tax obligations.

Sales and Transfers

When selling real property, it’s vital to specify which items (like fixtures) are included in the sale.

A common point of contention in real estate transactions is whether a particular item is a fixture (and thus part of the sale) or personal property that the seller will take with them.

Estate Planning

When drafting a will or other estate planning documents, it’s essential to know which assets are real and which are personal property.

This distinction can affect inheritance laws and how assets are distributed to heirs.

Final Thoughts

While at first glance, the difference between real and personal property may seem straightforward, nuances can lead to confusion.

It’s always wise to consult with legal or take a real estate course when you have questions about specific items or situations.

By understanding these distinctions, you’ll be better prepared for transactions, negotiations, and planning for your future.