Property law: What is the difference between a fixture and a chattel?

by The FindLaw Team

Many people can understandably get confused by certain aspects of the law, and let’s face it, there are some who have actually studied law, and have found it to be a difficult vocation on occasions. The law is difficult due to the fact that it requires practitioners to be precise, and some legal concepts may seem to be on the surface similar in nature, but are in fact separate legal elements all together. One such area which can cause confusion are matters involving fixtures, land and chattels, which can become an issue in regards to what is included in the conveyance. Some people may assume that all property included in a sale of land should be obvious, but disputes can arise in some instances when a person is trying to establish whether a piece of property is a fixture or a chattel.

What is a fixture?

At its most basic level, a fixture is something that is attached to the land in such a manner that it becomes part of the land. Therefore, when land is sold, the title to the land will also include all fixtures.

It may seem straightforward that anything attached to the land will be considered as a fixture, however, there are many considerations that need to be taken into account when making a determination on whether something is a fixture or a chattel, and the answer to the question may not always be easy to establish, furthermore, the test can also be superficial in nature in some regards.

How is a fixture determined?

To illustrate the difficulty in ascertaining the answer on whether a piece of property is a fixture or chattel, can be demonstrated in Australian Provincial Assurance Co Ltd v Coroneo, where the New South Wales Supreme Court had to decide whether or not seats bolted to the floor, and attached with one another in a theatre were to be considered as fixtures or chattels. Ultimately, the Court decided that the seats were not fixtures but chattels, with Jordan CJ saying:

“A fixture is a thing once a chattel which has become in law land through having been fixed to land. The question whether a chattel has become a fixture depends upon whether it has been fixed to land, and if so for what purpose. If a chattel is actually fixed to land to any extent, by any means other than its own weight, then prima facie it is a fixture; and the burden of proof is upon anyone who asserts that it is not: if it is not otherwise fixed but is kept in position by its own weight, then prima facie it is not a fixture; and the burden of proof is on anyone who asserts that it is…”

Jordan CJ also outlined the test which is to be applied, with his Honour stating:

“The test of whether a chattel which has been to some extent fixed to land is a fixture is whether it has been fixed with the intention that it shall remain in position permanently or for an indefinite or substantial period… or whether it has been fixed with the intent that it shall remain in position only for some temporary purpose…”

What about agricultural fixtures?

In some jurisdictions, legislation has been created allowing a tenant certain rights in relation to agricultural fixtures that have been attached to the land. Generally speaking, a tenant may be able to retain title to the property which is affixed and also has the right to removal on the proviso that no damage is caused, or that the property can be restored after removal.

What is a chattel?

Chattels are personal property that can be moved, such as furniture or household appliances for example.

Additionally, chattels can be included in the sale of land or moved, and in some cases, a chattel can become a fixture, with the ability to be moved by a third party if they are the actual rights holder of the property.

How is a chattel determined?

In order to make a determination on whether something is a fixture or a chattel, is dependent on the intention of the affixer, as well as the object which is annexed and the purpose of the annexation. In broad terms, if the property can be easily moved without causing too much damage to the land or property in which it is affixed, then an argument can be made that it is a chattel. However, if removal of the property can cause damage, then it can be argued that it is a fixture.

Ultimately, when making a decision on whether a piece of property is a chattel or fixture, is dependent on the surrounding facts of the case, and the answers to the questions of intention, object, purpose, and the degree of annexation – which is the general starting off point.

Disputes regarding property and the question on whether something is a fixture or chattel can be complex. It’s advisable that anyone who has an issue regarding property law seek the advice of a lawyer who will be able to assist in regards to their matter.


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