Tips for Understanding the Legal Description of a Property

How to Locate the Legal Description of Real Estate

There are a few different types of legal descriptions (discussed below), but these distinctions are often irrelevant to the deed preparation process. Knowing the different types of legal descriptions isn’t as important as knowing where to find the legal description to the specific property being conveyed.

The best place to find a legal description is usually the most recent deed to the property (the deed that conveyed the property to the current owner). The legal description is usually contained in the body of the deed. Legal descriptions are usually preceded by words of introduction, such as “… described as follows.” This language indicates that the legal description is about to begin.  The legal description is often double-indented or set in boldface type to set it apart from the rest of the deed. See the examples below for an illustration.

Sometimes, the legal description is attached as an exhibit to the deed. If so, the body of the deed will usually reference the attached legal description. For example, the body of the deed may refer to the property as “… the property described on Exhibit ‘A’ attached hereto.”  Exhibit “A” will be attached to the deed and contain the legal description.

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Uses of the Legal Description of Property

The legal description of a property has many uses for lenders, homeowners, and assessors alike. Homeowners can use the document to settle a dispute over property lines or close out a property sale, while lenders commonly utilize it to determine the terms of a mortgage. Alternately, assessors use this information to determine a property’s value and thus its property tax.

Why Is Knowing Your Property Lines Important?

Having a good understanding of your home’s property lines is a very important part of being a homeowner. Knowing where your property begins and ends can prevent potential unpleasantries or legal disputes with your neighbors. It can also ensure that you’re respecting your neighbor’s privacy and space. It’s important to note that an unknown property line encroachment could result in a title company refusing insurance.

How to Legally Determine Property Lines

Hire a Licensed Land Surveyor

To get an accurate determination of property lines that will stand up to legal scrutiny, you’ll need to hire a professional surveyor. (Note that most states require licensure of land surveyors; check your state’s requirements.)

While a professional survey may cost a a few to several hundred dollars—or more, depending on property location, size, shape, and terrain—it’s money well spent since property disputes cost a lot more in time, potential hefty legal fees, and neighborly goodwill.

Tier-and-Range System

The rectangular survey system (aka tier-and-range system, government survey system), was specified by Congress in 1785 to mark large tracts of land that the United States received in its early years, including the Northwest Territory.

The rectangular survey system specifies locations by using a rectangular coordinate system — hence, the name — that consists of principal meridians that run north and south and identifiable by longitude, and base lines that run east and west, identifiable by latitude. Principal meridians and base lines partition the land into quadrangles, which are squares of land with each side measuring 24 miles. These quadrangles are further subdivided in 16 townships, with each side of a township measuring 6 miles and covering an area of 36 square miles. Townships are further subdivided into 36 1-square mile sections, with each section equal to 640 acres. In many states, the rectangular survey system is supplemented with a mete-and-bounds description to describe small parcels of land.
Correction Lines

Correction Lines

Because the Earth is an oblate spheroid, range lines are not exactly 6 miles apart along the entire length, since they must ultimately converge to the same point at the North Pole. Correction lines are used to account for the fact that a township’s north boundary will be slightly shorter than its south boundary.

A correction line is every 4th township line — a distance of 24 miles — and guide meridians, which run north and south at 24 mile intervals from the principal meridian and are exactly parallel to the principal meridian, so that the discrepancy in area bounded by the correction lines and guide meridians — known as a government check — can be compared to the actual area bounded by the regular meridians, so that the discrepancy can be accounted for by reducing the size of the townships in the north and west of a quadrant.

Sections adjacent to the north and west boundaries of the township are adjusted according to well-established rules, using the difference between the government check and the actual area. The adjusted sections are called fractional sections, because they are slightly less than 1 square mile, but the remaining sections in a township are standard sections, each exactly 1 square mile.

Fractional Sections and Government Lots

Fractional sections that are more or less than 1 square mile also arises for reasons other than the fact that the meridians are not exactly parallel, which often occurs because the rectangular survey was done by separate crews working independently, resulting in gaps of less than 6 miles between the different surveyed areas. Fractional sections can also be caused by physical difficulties in surveying the land, because, for instance, some of it was submerged in water or because a township boundary was circumscribed by a state boundary line. Areas smaller than full quarter sections of 160 acres are called government lots.

Metes and Bounds Descriptions

The ​metes and bounds​ of a property are the actual boundary lines. The surveyor uses a specific point of beginning in the section where the property sits and maps out where the property begins and ends, reconnecting at the point of beginning. A legal description containing metes and bounds will describe the point of beginning and indicate the directions and distances from that point that outline the parcel.

How Property Lines Are Calculated

We know that fences don’t line every landowner’s plot, so how do we define where one yard ends and the neighbor’s begins? It’s a little less than precise, but to help make things more standardized, nearly the entire country has adopted a protocol called the Rectangular Survey System (RSS).

If you’re thinking RSS as in email, think again. Land surveyors use RSS to develop a system of rectangular parcels of land that can be added and measured to create an outline of the property. RSS works by dividing all land parcels into roughly 1-mile sections. The word “roughly” is used because these sections are hardly ever perfect. Roads, creeks, rivers, lakes and tree lines often get in the way of the perfect mile. The lines are then separated into two types: meridians and baselines. Meridians run north and south, baselines run east and west.

The RSS system was first used in eastern Ohio in an area called the Seven Ranges. The epicenter of the system is on the Ohio – Pennsylvania border near Pittsburgh. County lines regularly follow this survey, and the creation of it in the Midwest explains why many counties are rectangular shaped. This system has since become the nationwide standard of how we calculate property lines today.

So, what does this mean for appraisers? While conducting an appraisal of a given property, the appraiser will visit the county assessor’s office in the local municipality to acquire property records. They will look at the parcel ID and legal description to verify the basic description of the property location.

If the property is in a subdivision, then it will most likely be measured by RSS, and property lines can oftentimes be identified on the associated plat map. If the appraiser cannot verify the property boundaries, they will have to request a copy of a survey that would have to be performed by a licensed surveyor.

12.2 Description of a Condominium Interest

A condominium is real property; however, the ownership rights are different from a single-family residence. With a condominium, there is a common area which is owned jointly by all the condo owners, and then the airspace of the condominium unit space itself, which is owned individually. The owner of a condominium owns the inside of the unit, often just from the wall surface inward, and a share of all the exterior features and amenities, such as the yard, hallways, driveways, the structure of the building, and the land on which it sits, are part of the commonly shared property. Because each unit involves the interior of a unit, the elevation can be part of the description, and if basements, ground floors, second floors or higher are involved, then the description might include a reference to an official datum, or designated surface, used to measure elevations. The space is described in the condominium plan, recorded final map, or parcel map. The legal description generally includes the word condo or condominium, as well as the Tract number, Lot number, Unit number, and Building number. Since ownership is different, this can affect insurance, financing, and other factors for a buyer, so it’s important to determine whether a property is truly a condominium or not. Building style, or architecture, is not always a reliable indicator. To be sure of whether a property is a condominium or not, the best determination would be the legal description. The legal description can be found on the deed to the property.

Key Terms CondominiumAn estate in real property wherein there is an undivided interest in common in a portion of real property coupled with a separate interest in space called a unit, the boundaries of which are described on a recorded final map, parcel map or condominium plan. 

Related Resources

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Property Line Disputes: What They Are And How To Resolve Them Refinancing – 4-minute read Andrew Dehan – May 23, 2022 Disputes over boundaries between properties can sometimes pop up among homeowners. Learn more about types of property line disputes and how to settle them here. Read More

Land Survey: What It Is, Types And Cost Home Buying – 5-minute read May 23, 2022 Need a land survey but aren’t sure which type? Here’s a guide on the types of land surveys you may need and their costs to determine which one is right for you. Read More

Home Buyer’s Guide To Right Of Way Easements Home Buying – 5-minute read Kevin Graham – May 23, 2022 Wondering if the house you’re buying might come with a right of way easement? Learn how to check and what it will mean if there is one. Read More

Including Subdivision Plats

When a developer plans a housing subdivision, a survey is conducted to measure and identify the separate lots that will be sold. This is known as a subdivision plat.

There will be a plat map, which shows the location and number of each lot. The county may have separate plat books in which subdivisions are recorded.

For platted subdivisions, the property description is simplified. The property description used in deeds and other land documents will refer to the name of the subdivision and the lot number. For example:

“Lot 42, Block 3, of North Lakes Subdivision #1, according to map or plat thereof as recorded in Plat Book 62, Page 9, of the Public Records of Orange County, Florida.”

Types of Legal Descriptions

There are two primary types of legal descriptions: Lot and block descriptions, which are most often associated with subdivisions; and metes and bounds descriptions, which are used for non-subdivision property. Some legal descriptions contain both lot and block and metes and bounds descriptions.

Subdivision (Lot and Block)

If real estate is located in a subdivision, the legal description may be very simple. It will typically refer to one or more lots, the block (or blocks) on which the lots are located, the subdivision name, and the county and state.

Lot and Block Legal Description

Lot and Block Legal Description

To see an example of how a lot and block legal description appears on an actual deed, see Sample Deed – Lot and Block.

Survey (Metes and Bounds)

A metes and bounds description describes the property by locating it within the public surveying system. The boundaries of the property are described by working around a parcel of real estate in sequence, starting with a point of beginning.  The point of beginning could be a landmark or a point described based in the United States Public Land Survey System. Here’s an example of a metes and bounds description:

Metes and Bounds Legal Description

Metes and Bounds Legal Description

To see an example of how a metes and bounds description appears on an actual deed, see Sample Deed – Metes and Bounds.

Robert Reffkin

Robert Reffkin, the founder and CEO of Compass, helps you get closer to finding your dream home by simplifying and demystifying real estate.

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