Legal Description of Property: Definition, Importance & Example

Instructor: Ian Lord

Ian is a real estate investor, MBA, former health professions educator, and Air Force veteran.

The legal description of a property provides a clear and lawful definition of a property's boundaries. We will cover the importance of this document, the essential elements, and the methods surveyors use to create and confirm legal descriptions.

Legal Description Definition

How do you know exactly what you are buying when it comes to land? A legal description is a written record of a piece of land containing information that clearly identifies it. This description can be written in a few different forms depending on where the property is located in the United States. However, when dealing with one geographic area, the descriptions will tend to follow the same wording and language.

A legal description provides legal evidence of the boundaries and allows a surveyor to accurately determine property lines at a later time. This is incredibly useful and necessary during real estate transactions or disputes. The description will typically appear on sales contracts and the property deed.

Essential Elements

Legal descriptions of real estate must always identify the county and state the property is located in. Beyond that, the description must contain enough information that a competent licensed surveyor could go back later and clearly identify the property lines. The most common methods used to create legal descriptions are rectangular survey, metes and bounds, and the lot and block systems.

Rectangular Survey

The rectangular survey system started as a way of establishing the boundaries of large pieces of land as the United States expanded westward. A grid made up of north-to-south lines called meridians intersect with east-to-west lines known as baselines. The intersection of these lines becomes the origin point of the central building block of this grid system: the township. A township is a six square mile area further divided up into 36 separate one square mile sections. Sections can be further divided up into half sections, quarter sections, and smaller fractions of a quarter section.

The legal description for a large ranch might read as such:

Smith County Nebraska, Sixth Principal Meridian T2N, R1W, sec14.

Working backwards through the description, this would mean section 14 of the township located 1 township west and 2 townships north of the Six Principal Meridian located in Nebraska. This follows a standard format for the rectangular survey system, but the property deed would also need to contain the county the property is in for record purposes.

For residential real estate, this description is unlikely to come up. This system primarily applies to larger areas of land that were originally public lands later sold or still retained by the government. The next two systems are far more commonly seen on house deeds and real estate sales paperwork.

Metes and Bounds

Metes and bounds is a survey method that relies on tracing the corners of a property. Starting at an origin point, the surveyor follows a compass heading for a specified distance until they reach a new point or another property line. Anyone following the instructions would walk the perimeter of the property.

Since the metes and bounds system came to this country with English colonists, it is the dominant survey method in the the original colonies and older states. This is reflected in some of the language used. Some metes and bounds descriptions make references to distances in terms of rods and chains. These were standardized measurement systems for tracking distances longer than a couple of yards or feet. Because these terms were standardized, they are still useful for measuring the exact boundaries.

A metes and bounds legal description might read like this:

Starting at a point on the East Side of 1st Street 100 feet from the corner of 1st Street and A Boulevard, north 90 degrees 100 ft, then north 0 degrees 100 ft to the border of A Boulevard, then North 270 degrees to the intersection boundary of 1st Street and A Boulevard, then finally south to the point of beginning. Located in Sonoma County, CA.

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