In the classic TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies," the hillbillies of the title go from filthy to filthy rich after discovering oil on their property. If there's oil, coal, gold, diamonds or something else of value under your own property, you can cash in like the Clampett clan only if you own the mineral rights to the land. Depending on where you live, you may well not.
In most countries, there's no such thing as private mineral rights. All underground natural resources such as petroleum and precious metals belong to the government, which sells licenses to mine or drill for them. The U.S. and a few other countries allow mineral rights on private property, but those rights are commonly "separable" from the surface rights. That means a property owner can sell the rights to take the valuable stuff out the ground while holding on to the right to use the surface of the ground. Once mineral rights have been sold, they're gone. A previous owner may have sold the mineral rights out from under you 200 years ago. If that's the case, you can put up a gazebo, but not an oil well.
Where you live plays a major role in determining whether you own the mineral rights to your property. In some places, the standard practice has been to keep surface and mineral rights bound together. In areas without significant mineral resources -- that anyone knows about, at least -- no one's bothered to separate mineral rights, since no one was buying them. By contrast, the vast mineral-rich lands of the West were once owned by the federal government, and big chunks still are. When the government made these lands available to homesteaders, it typically reserved the mineral rights and sold them separately.
The way to learn for sure whether you own your property's mineral rights is by examining the "chain of title" to your land. That means tracing the ownership of the property all the way to the original land grant -- the official act that made the land private property. These are all public records and should be available through your county clerk's office. If you received an "abstract of title" when you bought your property, you already have these records. Read through the records in chronological order; if mineral rights have been separated -- or were never granted in the first place -- that should be noted. You can also hire an abstracting company to compile the records for you. If your property ownership is defined in public records as "a fee simple title," that usually means you have full rights to the land, both surface and mineral rights.
If it turns out you don't own the mineral rights, that doesn't necessarily mean a gang of coal miners is going to show up and demand to start blasting down into the earth from your basement. The rights may have been sold decades ago and then essentially abandoned. Still, it could happen. Local laws govern the accommodations that surface rights owners must make for mineral rights owners; in general, mineral rights holders are expected to minimize the impact of their extraction activities on surface owners. They may offer to buy your surface rights to avoid headaches -- but f the property owner who originally sold off the rights gave the buyer certain rights, like to dynamite any structures on the property, you're likely bound by that agreement.
Cam Merritt is a writer and editor specializing in business, personal finance and home design. He has contributed to USA Today, The Des Moines Register and Better Homes and Gardens"publications. Merritt has a journalism degree from Drake University and is pursuing an MBA from the University of Iowa.