Basic types of property in English common law, roughly corresponding to the division between immovables and movables in civil law. Real property consists of land, buildings, crops, and other resources, improvements, or fixtures still attached to the land. Personal property is essentially all property other than real property, including goods, animals, money, and vehicles.
Learn more about real and personal property with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Personal property may be classified in a variety of ways. Tangible personal property refers to any type of property that can generally be moved (i.e., it is not attached to real property or land), touched or felt. These generally include items such as furniture, clothing, jewelry, art, writings, or household goods. In some cases, there can be formal title documents that show the ownership and transfer rights of that property after a person's death (for example, motor vehicles, boats, etc.) In many cases, however, tangible personal property will not be "titled" in an owner's name and is presumed to be whatever property he or she was in possession of at the time of his or her death.
Intangible personal property or "intangibles" refers to personal property that cannot be actually "moved" touched or felt, but instead represents something of value such as negotiable instruments, securities, goods, and intangible assets including chose in action.
Accountants also distinguish personal property from real property because personal property can be depreciated faster than improvements (while land is not depreciable at all). It is an owner's right to get tax benefits for chattel, and there are businesses that specialize in appraising personal property, or chattel.
The distinction between these types of property is significant for a variety of reasons. Usually one's rights on movables are more attenuated than one's rights on immovables (or real property). The statutes of limitations or prescriptive periods are usually shorter when dealing with personal or movable property. Real property rights are usually enforceable for a much longer period of time and in most jurisdictions real estate and immovables are registered in government-sanctioned land registers. In some jurisdictions, rights (such as a lien or other security interest) can be registered against personal or movable property.
In the common law it is possible to place a mortgage upon real property. Such mortgage requires payment or the owner of the mortgage can seek foreclosure. Personal property can often be secured with similar kind of device, variously called a chattel mortgage, trust receipt, or security interest. In the United States, Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code governs the creation and enforcement of security interests in most (but not all) types of personal property.
There is no similar institution to the mortgage in the civil law, however a hypothec is a device to secure real rights against property. These real rights follow the property along with the ownership. In the common law a lien also remains on the property and it is not extinguished by alienation of the property; liens may be real or equitable.
Many jurisdictions levy a personal property tax, an annual tax on the privilege of owning or possessing personal property within the boundaries of the jurisdiction. Automobile and boat registration fees are a subset of this tax. Most household goods are exempt as long as they are kept or used within the household; the tax usually becomes a problem when the taxing authority discovers that expensive personal property like art is being regularly stored outside of the household.