When a home is exchanging hands, some things are obviously included in the transaction: the building itself and its structural elements — walls, roof, doors, and the like — and secondary structures, like a garage. And some things are obviously not included: furniture, clothing,  artwork and books.

However, what can be less clear is the status of certain other things in the home, like appliances, window treatments or water fountains. Do they stay or do they go?

And that’s where the concept of real estate fixtures comes in. The key to knowing what will be included in a real estate transaction is understanding what a real estate fixture is.

So, if you’re buying or selling a home, it’s important to be able to identify what fixtures are and how you can avoid disputes involving them.

What is a fixture in real estate?

In real estate, a fixture refers to a feature, item or object that is permanently attached or affixed to the property in some way — either the house itself or the surrounding grounds. It may not have been part of the original structure, but it’s been installed to stay in place; it’s not easily portable, in other words.

Fixtures are a type of real — as opposed to personal — property (more on that below). That means they’re considered part and parcel of the physical estate. They’re included in the property’s value when calculating things like property tax. And they are typically included in the sale of a property, following the transfer of title and the change of ownership.

The MARIA test

To identify whether something is a fixture, agents and other real estate pros apply a sort of test — a set of measures or characteristics to judge whether something counts as a fixture. Each letter in MARIA is an acronym for these criteria, any one of which can affect fixture status:

  • Method of attachment: Items permanently attached to the property, such as by cement or screws are usually considered fixtures.
  • Adaptability: Items adapted to a specific purpose in the home and that have become an essential piece of the home, such as floating flooring or a pool cover, are fixtures.
  • Relationship of the parties: The status of each party can determine whether something is a fixture. If a homeowner installs something, it’s more likely to be considered a fixture than if it was put there by a tenant who is renting the home.
  • Intention: The intent of the person who put the item in the home matters. If they clearly intended it to be a permanent (or sufficiently long-term) addition to the home, such as a stove or washer/dryer, it’s a fixture.
  • Agreement: Anything itemized and identified in a certain way in the purchase and sale agreement gets its status from that agreement. If the contract states something will remain in the home or is a fixture, it becomes one.

Fixtures vs personal property

All items on a property fall into one of two categories: real or personal property. Fixtures are considered real property: They “belong” to the estate. In contrast, personal property belongs to the individual owner (seller or family member) and is generally portable. Fixtures typically transfer their ownership along with the home while you’re free to take personal property with you when you sell.

You can use the MARIA above to determine what in your home is a fixture and what’s personal property. Keep in mind that even large items like furniture, which you might not immediately consider personal property, will count as such in a real estate transaction.

Examples of real estate fixtures

Fixtures can cause a lot of issues in real estate transactions because it’s not always clear what is a fixture and what isn’t.

Common items that are considered fixtures

Some common fixtures in a home include:

  • Built-in appliances: wall oven or dishwasher
  • Light fixtures: chandeliers, sconces
  • Ceiling fans
  • Curtain rods and window blinds/shades
  • Towel racks
  • Built-in bookshelves or storage
  • Smoke detectors
  • “Hard” landscaping elements: pergola, gazebo, fire pit

As you can see, fixtures can be large or small. The key is how affixed they are, how permanent a part of the home they seem to be. And even if they could be moved, if it would make sense to move them (why take a pool cover if the pool itself stays?).

Common items that are not fixtures

Items that typically don’t count as fixtures include:

  • Furniture
  • Rugs
  • Non-built in shelving, bookcases, and storage
  • Curtains or drapes
  • Loose yard decoration (like string lights)

Items that are often disputed as fixtures

Some items often fall into a gray area and might cause a dispute between a buyer and seller. Some examples are:

  • Major appliances: stove/oven ranges, free-standing washer/dryers, refrigerators
  • Wall mirrors
  • Wall-mounted tech: TVs, speakers
  • Window treatments
  • Large outdoor equipment: basketball hoops, playgrounds or swing sets
  • Above-ground swimming pools
  • Plants, shrubs

Window treatments are a particularly confusing one: You may have noticed that curtain rods are considered fixtures, while curtains are not. Again, this reflects the permanency element — the rods are considered built-in to the window frame, while drapes can detach.

The wall-mounted tech can be tricky too. Basically, the brackets have to stay, but the device itself can go.

Avoiding fights over fixtures

Different states and local governments might have particular regulations about what constitutes a fixture or how to determine a fixture. These will be enumerated in standard real estate contracts. Generally speaking, if a seller wants to take a fixture with them — say, a chandelier, an oft-disputed item — they have to replace it for the buyer, installing some sort of light fixture.

So, if you want anything different from the standard, or to just to avoid problems on closing day, the best thing that you can do is to simply talk it out with the other party. And then put it in writing.

“If you are ever in doubt about fixtures in a real estate transaction, then you can always specifically call them out in the purchase and sale agreement,” says Doug Greene, the owner of Philadelphia-based Signature Properties.”There you would identify what stays with the property and what goes with the seller.”

If there’s a disagreement over what qualifies, you can always try to work it out another way, such as by having the seller compensate the buyer for certain things they wish to keep. For example, if the seller loves their Sub-Zero fridge, they could offer the buyer money to put toward a new refrigerator. If there are a lot of expensive fixtures the seller wants to take it with them, they could even knock a thousand dollars or so off the purchase price.

Ultimately, the best thing to do is to be very clear and specific in your contract, so that neither party is left wondering what is a fixture and what isn’t.