Key takeaways

  • Fee simple is a legal term indicating full ownership of real estate.
  • In fee simple ownership, the land and the structures on it are owned outright, with no limitations.
  • Most home purchases in the U.S. provide fee simple ownership to the buyer.

In real estate transactions you might hear the term “fee simple” used. Though it may sound anything but simple, the concept is actually not difficult to understand: Fee simple applies to ownership of land and is the dominant form of ownership in the United States. Most homes purchased in the U.S. are fee simple purchases.

Fee simple definition

Fee simple is a legal term used in real estate that means full and irrevocable ownership of land, and any buildings on that land. Fee simple is the highest form of ownership — it means the land is owned outright, without any limitations or restrictions other than local zoning ordinances. The term fee simple applies only to real estate, which includes land, immovable property and any property directly attached, such as a building, road, pond or machinery.

When you buy a home, you usually purchase it fee simple. You own the property the home sits on and all rights to its use, and your name is on the title and deeds.

In the instance of condominiums or apartments, the owners of individual units receive fee simple ownership that gives them full legal rights subject to an agreement known as a restrictive covenant. The owners share common rights for the use of public areas and also carry certain obligations toward its upkeep.

What are the different types of fee simple ownership?

There are two types of fee simple ownership, absolute and defeasible. The latter has a few different varieties as well. Here’s a breakdown:

Fee simple absolute

Fee simple and fee simple absolute are the same thing. When you own land completely, without any limitations, it is also known as absolute. The land is still subject to property taxes and the like, though.

Fee simple defeasible

Fee simple defeasible is a similar type of property ownership. In this case, however, ownership is dependent on very specific, pre-established conditions. What’s more, if the conditions of ownership are violated, the property may be returned to the grantor or to a specified third party.

There are three different types of fee simple defeasible: subject to condition subsequent, determinable and subject to executory limitation. Each type of fee simple defeasible includes different results or actions if the conditions of property ownership are violated. Here’s more about the three types:

Fee simple subject to condition subsequent

In the case of fee simple subject to condition subsequent, property does not automatically transfer back to the grantor if the conditions of ownership aren’t met or are violated. Instead, if the conditions are violated or fail to be met, the grantor has the option to take back the property. This option is referred to as right of reentry. If the grantor does not take any action in response to ownership conditions being violated, then the property remains with the party that violated the terms.

Fee simple determinable

Fee simple determinable takes that one step further. In fee simple subject to condition subsequent, when conditions are not met, the grantor must take action. But in fee simple determinable, if conditions are violated or somehow not met, ownership of the property is automatically transferred back to the grantor. There is no further action required on their part.

Fee simple subject to executory limitation

This final type of fee simple defeasible is very similar to fee simple determinable. However, in the case of fee simple subject to executory limitation, if conditions are violated or somehow not met, ownership of the property is automatically transferred to a third party with no further action required. (As opposed to being transferred back to the grantor, as in fee simple determinable.)