Legal Description of Real Estate

Legal description:

A description of a parcel of land that will be accepted by courts because it is complete enough to locate and identify the land.

A description in a real estate instrument sets forth the physical dimensions of what is being conveyed. Boundaries are based upon this description. They establish the property on the earth's surface. Often they are imaginary lines, but sometimes they are marked by an object.

With only a few exceptioins, American law requires a written instrument to transfer an interest in real estate. To be enforceable in a court of law, the written instrument must contain a valid description of the property involved. The courts will not enforce the written instrument if the description is incorrect or ambiguous. A seller or lessor who has agreed to transfer an interest in real estate is in breach of contract if the instrument executed does not properly describe the property.

The chief purpose of the description is to furnish a means for identifying a particular parcel of land. In addition, the description must describe an area that is bounded completely. In other words, the boundaries indicated by the description must close the parcel.

For a deed or other conveyance to be enforceable in a court of law, the description must make possible positive identification of land. Courts consider this accomplished if a surveyor or other person familiar with the area can locate the property and determine its boundaries using the description in that conveyance. Although a description by street and number is not advisable, it passes title if the property is located in a municipality that has established a standard system of numbering.

A technically accurate description that provides all the information necessary to locating land is preferable to one that needs clarification by other evidence. Courts, however, are exceedingly liberal in allowing outside evidence to clarify an ambiguous description. Testimony of the circumstances surrounding the transaction, the interpretation placed upon the description by the parties, statements of surveyors, neighbors and public officials as well as the physical elements of the area may be introduced. What the courts are searching for is the intent of the parties.

The most effective clarification is provided by a deed's reference to a survey, map, plat, or some similar document that correctly describes the land. The details of this extrinsic document become part of the description and can be used to resolve ambiguities or to locate the parcel. In fact, many deeds describe a parcel of land by reference to a master survey, plat, or map. This is a common practice that saves time and provides clarity.

Because of the complicated nature of boundaries and the economic importance of real property, the art of surveying has been in use since antiquity to establish and verify boundaries. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans perfected the art. In the Americas the sedentary Indian peoples, such as the Incas and Mayans, were remarkable surveyors.

In the sophisticated technological world of today, surveys by trained professionals are an integral part of the real estate business. Although the basis of a real estate conveyance is what the parties agree to as the boundaries, agreement is seldom reached without the help of a survey. Only in rare instances would a tract be subdivided without a survey or would unplatted land be sold without being mapped. In these situations the surveyor's work is the basis for any description in a deed or other real estate instrument. In litigation involving boundary problems, the surveyor often testifies as an expert witness, giving an expert's opinion as to what the grantor's intention was. The surveyor's work is a critical factor in each of the three types of descriptions commonly used in the United States: Metes & Bounds, the Rectangular Survey, and plats & maps.

Metes & Bounds:

A method of describing land by specifying the exterior boundaries of the property using compass directions, monuments or landmarks where directions change and linear measurement of distances between these points.

As the eastern United States was settled and developed, probably the most common method of describing land was to name the parcel. For example, the property would be described as the Jackson Plantation or the Ebenezer Smith farm. Usually boundaries were indicated by naming the owners of adjoining property or by natural landmarks called monuments. An early deed might have described property thusly:

Commencing at a heap of stone about a stone's throw from a certain small clump of alders, near a brook running down off from a rather high part of said ridge; thence by a straight line to a certain marked white birch tree, about two or three times as far from a jog in a fence going around a ledge nearby; thence by another straightline in a different direction, around said ledge and the Great Swamp, so called; the "Horn," so called, and passing around the same as aforesaid, as far as the "Great Bend," so called, a stake and stone not far off from the old Indian trail; thence, by another straight the stump of the big hemlock tree where Philo Blake killed the bear; thence, to the corner begun at by two straight lines of about equal length, which are to be run by some skilled and competent surveyor, so as to include the area and acreage as herein before set forth.

A description based primarily on adjoiners (names of owner sof contiguous property, a road, or something similar) and monuments is still used if the costs of a survey are out of proportion to the amount of money involved. Descriptions of this nature may cause problems if some impermanent monuments are selected.

Metes-and-bounds descriptions provide a more sophisticated method of describing real property. A metes-and-bounds description is based upon a survey that commences at a beginning point on the boundary of the tract and follows compass directions, called courses, and distances around the area to the point of beginning. Monuments are placed at the corners or at points where directions change. Monuments are visible objects, sometimes natural but often artificial. They can be posts, iron pipes, piles of stone, trees, streams or similar objects. The course and distance of each line is broken down into short segments referred to as "calls." By following the calls, a person would be able to walk the boundaries of the property.

A typical metes-and-bounds description:

Beginning at an iron pipe marked A and thence running South 8 degrees 15 minutes East 75 feet to a pipe marked B, thence North 78 degrees 27 minutes East 34 3/10 feet to a pipe marked C, thence North 11 degrees 28 minutes West 74 9/10 feet to a pipe marked D, thence South 78 degrees 27 minutes West 30 2/10 feet to the place of beginning containing 2410.7 square feet, more or less.

Metes-and-bounds descriptions based upon a survey provide a very accurate method of designating the physical dimensions of a particular tract of land. When the land itself is supplied with permanent markers at each corner or angle, the parcel can be readily located for a long period of time. This method of describing land continues to be used extensively in the eastern United States. Metes-and-bounds descriptions are also used extensively in other areas of the contry in conjunction with the rectangular survey to designate small parcels.

The measurements described thus far work well enough when the property in question is perfectly square or rectangular Many parcels of property, however, contain curved boundary lines. To demarcate curved lines, a surveyor makes reference to the arc distance of the curve, the radius distance of the curve, and the course and distance of the chord. The term arc refers to the length of a curved line that makes up a segment of the boundary of the real property. The radius refers to the distance between any point on that curved line and the center of an imaginary circle that could be drawn if that curved line was extended to form a full circle. A chord is a straight line drawn from the starting point of an arc to the end point of an arc. A sample description of a curved boundary line reads as follows: "thence run along said curve to the right having a chord bearing of South 32 degrees 1 minute East, a radius of 47 feet, and a central angle of 46 degrees 50 minutes for an arc distance of 35.17 feet to a point of tangency. This example illustrates the complexity of some metes-and-bounds descriptions. [Relax. I don't expect you to be able to read or describe curved property lines, or even understand the geometry involved. (I sure don't!) But its important that you be familiar with the process so you will recognize it when you see it.]

Drawing out a Metes-and-Bounds Description already Written

If you are required to draw out a written metes-and-bounds legal description you need a compass and ruler at hand. The first step is to break the legal description into a series of calls os that you are working with only one call at a time. Then locate the point of beginning and place the center of the compass circle over the point of beginning so that the compass lines up in a north-south direction. Next, read the first call, for example, South 30 degrees East a distance of 45 feet. Find the southeast quadrant and locate 30 degrees east of south. Make a mark at the 30 degree point. Then read the rest of the call, which in this example is a distance of 45 feet. Taking a ruler, from the point of beginning draw a line to the mark you made at the 30 degree point, and then measure along that angle a straight line equivalent to 45 feet.

The term "equivalent" is used here because you are drawing to scale. When drawing to scale you are making sure that the measurements of the boundary lines in your diagram relate in size to the measurements of the actual boundary lines of the particular parcel of real property. For example, the scale might indicate that one mile equals eight inches. Once this line is drawn, you have drawn your first call. To continue take the compass and place the center of the compass in a north-south direction at the end of the line just drawn and repeat the procedure with the next call. Once you have drawn each call, the diagram should close at the point of beginning.

Writing a Metes-and-Bounds Description from a Provided Survey

If you are asked to prepare a written metes and bound description from a provided survey, the first thing you must do is find the point of beginning and describe it. For example: "Begin at the NW corner of Section X, thence South 21 feet, thence East 10 feet to a Point of Beginning." Then find the first call and describe each call in turn until you come back to the point of beginning.

Rectangular Survey System

System of land description that applies to most of the land in the United States.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States acquired a vast area of land west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. This area, known as the Northwest Territory was acquired when states ceded their claims to the United States as a means of paying their war debts. Faced with pressures from land speculators and settlers as well as the need for revenue, Congress in 1785 passed legislation to prepare these lands fro disposal.

An important element of this legislation was the establishment of a rectangular survey system. Although the government survey was criticized and attacked by the private land companies, it eventually became the foundation upon which vast areas of the West were surveyed and sold.

With the exception of Texas, land descriptions in all states west of the Mississippi, the five states formed from the Northwest Territory, and most of Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi are based upon this massive survey. Eventually, the survey covered more than two million square miles in the continental United States. It has been extended to Alaska, where hundreds of thousands of square miles remain unsurveyed. Although modified by legislation from time to time over the 200 years that the system has been used, the fundamentals of the rectangular survey have remained fairly consistent.

Initially, a large area is selected for survey and a starting point is chosen. This initial point is chosen by astronomical observation. A line called a baseline is run east and west through this point. A perpendicular line also runs north and south through the initial point. This is called the principal meridian. The survey for the entire district is based upon these two lines. Over the long history of the government survey, 32 baselines and 35 principal meridians have been established.

Principal meridians and baselines are designated in various ways. At first they were numbered, but later they were given names. The first principal meridian is the western boundary of Ohio. The 41st parallel is its accompanying baseline. All land descriptions in a particular area surveyed with reference to a principal meridian will refer to it. The basic unit of the survey is the township. Townships are divided into sections. Sections are divided into half sections, quarter sections, and even smaller units. This division is readily accomplished by surveying and designating smaller units by their geographic location within the section.

As far as I can tell this method of land description is the BEST reason not to go out west not to practice. I'm not going to inflict any more on you than I already have. Stay east and work with metes-and-bounds your entire career.


A map showing items such as natural and artificial monuments and artificial monuments, lots, blocks and streets in a town or subdivision; generally drawn from a survey.

A third method of describing land is by reference to a recorded plat or map. This method is used frequently in metropolitan areas. Usually it is used in conjunction with the rectangular survey or a metes-and-bounds description of a larger tract that is being divided (e.g., a residential subdivision).. The property to be divided is surveyed and laid out in lots that are numbered in sequence. These lots are platted and when sold are described by their designated numbers. A description of this kind might read as follows:

All of lot 8 in block 41 in Taylors Astorial, an addition within the corporate limits of the City of Astoria, Clatsop County, State of Oregon, as said addition was laid out and recorded by the Peninsular Land & Trust Company.

Although the deed does not contain the description of the entire survey, the United States Supreme Court in an early case supported this system. In Cragin v. Powell, 128 U.S. 696 (1888) the Court said:

When lands are granted according to an official plat of the survey..., the plat itself along with all its notes, lines, descriptions, and landmarks becomes as much a part of the grant or if such descriptive features were written out upon the face of the deed.

The use of maps and plats of surveys has become an important means of describing land in the United States. Plats are readily available because almost all states and many localities require a developer, when subdividing property, to have the property surveyed and a plat of it made by a competent surveyor.

Although requirements vary, the plat generally shows the proposed streets, blocks, and lots of the subdivision. The plat will also show such items as easements, rights of way, and topographical details, such as elevations, as well as other physical features. School sites and recreational areas are indicated on plats for larger developments. Blocks and lots are designated in some manner, usually by number but sometimes by letter.

In most areas subdivision plats must be approved by some governmental body before land is sold. Usually this is a local planning commission or a designated official such as the county engineer. The approved plat is then recorded in a plat book as part of the public land records. The property in the subdivision is thus accurately described by reference to this record. In addition, recording of the plat serves to dedicate to public use land indicated on the plat as streets, parks, and school and church sites.

In preparing land for a subdivision, the surveyor must carefully mark with permanent monuments physical boundaries of the parcels involved. The survey actually fixes the boundaries of the property, and these are reflected in the plat. If the plat and the boundaries fixed by the survey differ, the boundary as established by the physical monuments prevails.