Legal Description of a Property

Civil engineer working with total station on a building's property site location
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A legal description of property is a way to define or accurately pinpoint where a particular piece of property is located. A street address also identifies a physical location but not in the same way that a legal description defines it. In fact, they sometimes don't even match.

Some legal descriptions are very simple and involve a lot and a block within a subdivision name, but even those specifics can be wrong when verified by surveying equipment.

To make certain that you own a piece of property, it's a good idea to buy a title insurance policy, which protects against human error that could challenge your ownership.

Key Takeaways

  • Townships typically divide land into grids of lots and blocks that are used as reference points to describe property boundaries.
  • You will mostly find lot and block legal descriptions within city boundaries.
  • Property and lot boundaries aren't always exact.

Metes and Bounds Legal Description

A more common legal description is metes and bounds. This is a public surveying system that is centuries old. Using this method, townships and ranges are divided into sections, each totaling 640 acres. The legal description pinpoints the location of a given property within its particular township, range, and section.

For example, each township is six square miles, or 23,040 acres, and contains 36 square sections, which are each intended to be one square mile (or 640 acres).

Townships run north and south, and range lines run east and west. The township and range system was adopted in the Governmental Land Surveys in 1785 and has been used ever since.

This system can be thought of as a big grid of squares. For reference, each section is 640 acres. A half-section is 320 acres. A quarter section is 160 acres. Half of a quarter section is 80 acres. A quarter of a quarter section is 40 acres.

If we were to designate a particular parcel of property that's been evenly divided, one might refer to an area encompassing 20 acres as the south half of the southwest fourth of the southeast fourth of Section 32, T1N. That would be a very easy parcel of land to find on a map. It becomes more complicated when metes and bounds are required to explain the location.

In a metes and bounds legal description, one would designate the starting point, also known as the POB, or the "point of beginning." For example, you might begin at the southwest corner of the southeast fourth of Section 32, T1N and go a certain number of feet to a particular degree. The legal description would continue to take you in a variety of different degrees and angles until you have connected the line back to the point of beginning and have drawn an accurate map of your property boundaries.

When you start to describe a metes and bounds legal description, you always start with the point of beginning. Another common acronym is PIQ ("property in question"). Any property you are talking about or giving directions to becomes the property in question.

Not Always Exact

Using a protractor, you can draw your own legal description of the property, which is how title searchers had to draw the metes and bounds descriptions from courthouse grantor and grantee book entries. Title searches used this method to ascertain whether a document affected the property they were searching for in the public records. Today, most of that is completed via a computer.

It is not always exact, either. Not only are metes and bounds not always an exact measurement, but even lots and blocks can be off by a few feet here and there. You might wonder how that could happen. Often, it's by accident. A homeowner builds a garage on a line he thinks is the property boundary but is actually off by two feet, and that can push a neighbor's lot line by two feet. That is why some title companies will still perform a survey even when the legal description is a lot and a block.

Sometimes, you can find your own corner markers in the ground, but that is more likely to happen on a property with acreage and a metes and bounds description than with a lot and block.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you find a property's legal description?

A property's legal description will be on the deed. You can typically find a deed in your area through a local authority's website. Make sure to look at the most recent deed for the most accurate information.

How do you change a property's legal description?

The exact method of changing a property's legal description will vary, depending on the type of property and where you live, but it should be a fairly straightforward process. Legal descriptions commonly change, especially as more accurate GPS tools highlight errors in how properties were originally described. Contact your city or county authorities to learn more about the process in your area.

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  1. The Newberry Library. "Understanding Township and Range," Pages 1-2.

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