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Metes & Bounds: Definition & Uses

Instructor: Ian Lord

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

This lesson will explain the history and description of the metes and bounds system in real estate surveys. By the end of the lesson, you will better understand where and how it's used.

Metes and Bounds History

Before modern technology and mapping, how did our forefathers know the boundaries of real estate? Throughout all of human history, the importance of land boundaries has never been in doubt. The original Thirteen Colonies of the United States brought the metes and bounds system to America. The concept originates from English common law.

Metes and bounds was the dominant survey method until 1785. At that point, the rapid expansion of the US required a simplified and more efficient way of allocating land. It is still used as the primary survey method in the original colonies and the first expansions of the country. These other states are West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vermont, and Maine.

Smaller scale land allocation within more modern large-scale systems still makes some use of metes and bounds. Within the larger PLSS system, lot and block methods help define individual neighborhoods and towns. Metes and bounds are still often used to identify specific pieces of land such as a residence or farm. Modern technology such as GPS opens up the metes and bounds system to further revision and increases in border accuracy.

Metes and Bounds Method Description

1700

So how does metes and bounds work? Let's start with what the words mean. Metes refers to straight line distances between two points. Bounds refers to less specific but identifiable line that follows a feature like a river edge, road, or building.

How about making these measurements? Start by identifying what will be the first corner or benchmark of the property. This might be the intersection of a road or a post. It will be some kind of physically identifiable feature. That point is the first monument in the survey. A compass direction is then given to another monument. A monument is a natural or man-made feature. It could also be another property line or just an imaginary point defined by distance.

From there, the process repeats until the boundary returns to the original corner. With the metes and bounds description, a compass, and measuring devices you could walk the boundary lines. The formal description is described in plain speech describing the distance and direction of property line in progressive order around the borders.

The original measure method might surprise you. While feet or meters could be used, in longer distances rods and chains were common. A rod was standardized at a length 16.5 feet. Four rods equal a chain: 66 feet in length. Coupled with a compass heading, a surveyor used these tools to identify survey lines.

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