Personal property is generally considered property that is movable, as opposed to real property or real estate. In common law systems, personal property may also be called chattels or personalty. In civil law systems, personal property is often called movable property or movables – any property that can be moved from one location to another.
Personal property is movable and can be understood in comparison to immovable property or real property, such as land and buildings. Movable property on land, for example, larger livestock, was not automatically sold with the land, it was “personal” to the owner and moved with the owner. The word cattle is the Old Norman variant of Old French chatel, chattel (derived from Latin capitalis, “of the head”), which was once synonymous with general movable personal property.
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 actually be moved, touched or felt, but instead represents something of value such as negotiable instruments, securities, service (economics), 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.
The distinction between tangible and intangible personal property is also significant in some of the jurisdictions which impose sales taxes. In Canada, for example, provincial and federal sales taxes were imposed primarily on sales of tangible personal property whereas sales of intangibles tended to be exempt. The move to value added taxes, under which almost all transactions are taxable, has diminished the significance of the distinction.
Personal versus private property
In political/economic theory, notably socialist, Marxist, and most anarchist philosophies, the distinction between private and personal property is extremely important. Which items of property constitute which is open to debate. In some philosophies, such as capitalism, private and personal property are considered to be exactly equivalent.
Personal property includes “items intended for personal use” (e.g., clothes, homes, and vehicles, and sometimes money). It must be gained in a socially fair manner, and the owner has a distributive right to exclude others.
Private property is a social relationship between the owner and persons deprived (not a relationship between person and thing), e.g., artifacts, factories, mines, dams, infrastructure, natural vegetation, mountains, deserts and seas. Marxism holds that a process of class conflict and revolutionary struggle could result in victory for the proletariat and the establishment of a communist society in which private property and ownership is abolished over time and the means of production and subsistence belong to the community. (Private property and ownership, in this context, means ownership of the means of production, not personal possessions).
To many socialists, the term private property refers to capital or the means of production, while personal property refers to consumer and non-capital goods and services.