What Is Condemnation?

Condemnation is the seizure of private property by a government for a public purpose. Eminent domain gives governments the power to take private property. However, the government must compensate the owner for seizing the property.  

Key Takeaways

  • Eminent domain is the right of the government to seize property and transfer from private to public ownership.  
  • Condemnation is the legal process utilized by the government to seize property via eminent domain. 
  • Eminent domain is often used to acquire property for projects such as highways, railways, airports, powerlines, and pipelines, but it can be used for intellectual property. 
  • The government is required to provide "just compensation" for the condemned property. 

How Condemnation Works

In the U.S., states and the federal government have the right of eminent domain, which allows them to condemn property, transferring the title from private to public ownership. The condemning authority must provide "just compensation" (the language comes from the Fifth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution), and the condemnation must be carried out for some public purpose. If the property owner considers the amount offered inadequately reflects the value, they can pursue the matter in court.  

Condemned property owners would then can challenge the legality of the seizure in court, suing for more compensation or the right to keep the property based on failure to prove the seizure was in the public interest. Before property seizure, government authorities must first appraise the property. They may then pay a pro tanto award, which the owner can accept without losing the right to sue, or the parties can come to a full settlement. Pro tanto payments are often small compared to the amount the courts ultimately award owners of the condemned property.

Property can be seized for economic development, not just public use. 

Special Considerations 

The condemning entity is required to provide timely notification throughout the condemnation process and a copy of the required appraisal. The amount offered can be contested in court or before a special commissioner. The property owner can challenge the commissioner's ruling. However, the condemnor can issue payment based on the commissioner's decision. As the appeal proceeds in the court, the condemnor will have the right to access the property and move forward with their project. 


The year of the first eminent domain case—Kohl v. United States—heard by the Supreme Court 

Types of Condemnation

The most straightforward examples of condemnation involve land and buildings, which governments might seize to make way for a public project, such as a highway; or private projects that are believed to serve the public good, such as a hotel expected to attract business and generate tax revenue. Not all condemned property is real estate, however. Funds have been subject to eminent domain, and some legal scholars argue that governments could even seize intellectual property through condemnation.

For powerline and pipeline projects, the landowner retains ownership, the government is gaining an easement which grants them nonpossessory rights to install and maintain the pipelines or powerlines on your property. An agreement is executed via a deed with the original property owner.