Real and personal property

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The terms 'real property' (or 'realty') and 'personal property' ('personalty') derive from the mediaeval judicial remedies that were available in disputes over ownership. A 'real' remedy involved the return of the thing itself, while a 'personal' remedy was satisfied by the award of the value of the thing. Where the thing in dispute was land (or, strictly speaking, an interest in land), then in most cases a personal remedy would not be adequate; for most people there would be no adequate substitute for the land itself. Land does not move: if someone else is occupying my land then I need him off, not another piece of land somewhere else. On the other hand one cow, for example, may be as good as any other. Such considerations led to the notion that ownership of land was fundamentally different from ownership of other things (specifically, moveable things), and this in turn leads to our modern concept of 'real property'. This term is difficult to accord a precise definition, but in practice it is usually taken to mean interests in land, buildings and fixtures on land, and rights to the enjoyment of land. Everything else is 'personal property'.

Land and Property Law