If you’ve ever bought property before, you’ve probably glanced at your deed and noticed its legal description.
Did you read it?
If not, you should.
This is because the legal description identifies your property legally.
It can also allow you to pinpoint where a particular piece of property is located.
In essence, it defines the real estate that you’re buying or selling.
Typically, the legal description comes into play with your deed.
Your deed needs to have an accurate legal description of your property, so if you’re looking for the legal description after you already own a parcel of land, then this is the best place to look.
As one of the most critical pieces of information that’s involved in land transactions, legal descriptions are important to understand before buying property.
In this blog, we’ll talk about everything you need to know, including how to read the legal description of your property.
What is the legal description of a property?
The description must be complete enough that a parcel of land can be located and identified based on what is written.
The legal description is kept with the deed and filed with the county clerk or county tax accessor.
You’ll need the legal description for any sales contracts, deeds, and mortgages.
Here is an example of what a legal description of a property may look like if you’re looking for yours…
Commence at the NE Corner of the East ½ of West ½ of NE ¼ of SW ¼ of Section 17, Township 1 North, Range 12 West and run S – degrees 03’08” E, 28 feet to the South right of way line of Silver Lake Road and the Point of Beginning; thence continue S 0 degrees 03’08” E, 409.67 feet; thence N 89 degrees 54’41” W, 314.69 feet to the East line of a 20 foot easement; thence run N 0 degrees 04’27’ W along said line, 409.50 feet to the South right of way line of Silver Lake Road; thence run S 89 degrees 56’41” E along said line 314.86 feet to the Point of Beginning.
A professional land surveyor creates the legal description of a property.
They act as an unbiased third-party fact-checker.
While the legal description of a property can be disputed, the resolution is often to hire yet another land surveyor that both parties agree on to conduct an additional version of a land survey.
If one party feels shorted by the outcome, then monetary compensation for the perceived loss is typically the best way to ensure there are no hard feelings.
Why does the legal description matter?
We said it above, and we’ll say it again.
The legal description of a property is one of the most critical pieces of information that’s involved in a land transaction.
Because having an incorrect legal description means you may not receive the right parcel of land.
At the end of the day, you own what is written in the legal description of your deed.
If this is incorrect, then you don’t legally own what you think you do.
Legal descriptions are essential to the land buying process, and thus knowing how to read the legal description of a property is equally as important.
Even long-time real estate investors don’t give much thought to these letter-number combinations.
They get copied and pasted from document to document without thought.
Don’t keep passing the buck!
Get the legal description of your property checked through a land survey so that you know you have everything aligned and ready to go.
What types of legal descriptions exist?
As you begin learning about reading legal descriptions, you’ll realize that there are different types of legal descriptions.
Understanding the difference can help you as you delve into this part of landowning and land buying.
Lot and block: The simplest of the most common survey types to understand.
The lot and block system is most often associated with a planned subdivision.
Surveys for lot and block will depend on the age of the property and if the corners and other landmarks mentioned are still present.
This type of description will often contain individual lots, block locations, place of official recording, and reference to cited plat map.
Every lot and block survey is part of a larger plat map which has a permanent reference monument or control point.
Metes and bounds: This type of legal description dates back hundreds of years.
It uses bearings and distances to measure the circumference of the property described in the legal description and is based on physical features of its geography as well as directions and distances.
It describes the property’s boundaries in terms of north and south.
This method is best used when land survey areas are irregularly sized and/or shaped.
This makes the boundaries of the property more clearly defined, and it’s ideal for undeveloped land in rural areas.
Metes: property’s boundary line determined by measuring the distance between two points; can also determine the plot of land’s direction
Bounds: describes a property’s boundary line; typically used to define properties with more acreage
Monuments: also known as survey markers or geodetic markers; objects placed on the property to mark important surveys on the land’s surface; typically metal rods or concrete pieces lodged into the ground although sometimes they may be more unique objects like liquor bottles, clay pots, rock cairns
In the U.S., it is a misdemeanor to intentionally destroy, remove, or deface permanent survey markers.
The metes and bounds description has a point of commencement and a point of beginning.
The point of commencement helps direct the surveyor to the point of beginning where the property actually begins.
Fractional: This type of legal description describes a property by breaking it down into sections.
In general, they’re considered the easiest to write but the hardest to survey.
Certified corner records are used to calculate measurements and figure out distances, which takes additional time and costs more money.
The surveyor must find three of the section’s certified corners – which are a mile apart – and walk there with their equipment following the instructions on the legal description.
How does a legal description differ from other types of descriptions?
Sometimes landowners will confuse the legal descriptions with other descriptions of the property, like their street address or the description shown in the property tax records.
It’s important to remember that the legal description is the only one that is legally sufficient to transfer the described property.
When the legal description (and the information that is supposed to be contained in it) is incorrectly stated on the deed, the wrong piece of real estate will be transferred from the previous owner to the new owner.
When preparing a legal description, you’ll want to use the exact legal description that appeared on the most recent deed to the property.
Avoid using the property tax record description, which is often brief and inadequate when it comes to legally describing the property.
Your street address is also far short of a legal description because these are unreliable and can change.
In short, never substitute another description for the true legal description.
Just whip out the most recent deed to the property and use the legal description found on that deed.
How to read the legal description of the property
In this section, we’ll attempt to decode how to read the legal description of property using the grid system which was adopted by the US in 1785.
However, keep in mind that some legal descriptions are incredibly complicated, and as noted above, there are different types of legal descriptions, which means it can get complicated if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.
If you’re having trouble, don’t be afraid to seek out an experienced eye, so you get all of the information you need from the description.
For most states – Texas and the east coast are exceptions – the Public Land Survey System or Township System is used to organize and describe land.
The Township System is essential to understand when you’re attempting to locate land.
A township is a specific box of land that is six miles wide and six miles tall.
States will have an east-west axis and a north-south axis drawn through their middle like a Cartesian graph.
The township’s location in relation to the state’s parallel line is where townships get their name.
For example, a township that is located 2 miles south of the state’s parallel line and 2 miles east of the vertical line would be T2S-R2E, or Township 2 South, Range 2 East.
Because each township is six miles wide by six miles tall, there are a total of 36 miles in each.
These square miles are called sections and are numbered.
Typically section #1 starts in the NE corner and snakes through the township, ending with #36 at the SE corner.
Each square mile is one section which is 640 acres.
These 640 acres would describe a perfect section, although most aren’t.
If you’re attempting to describe your land in terms of section, then you could do so by taking the section number (say Section #20) and adding it to the beginning of the township as Section 20, Township 2 South, Range 2 East (S20, T2S-R2E).
Land can also be further divided past 640 acres.
A surveyor may describe land by dividing the sections into fractions, usually starting with quarter sections.
For example, the north half is referred to as N/2 (320 acres) or the northwest quarter is referred to as NW/2 (160 acres).
This is why 40 acres is a common land size for land in the U.S. – a section of land has 16 blocks of 40-acre tracts.
Your property description may also say a block and a lot number, which refers to a specific developed area of town, city, or housing project.
If this is the case, then your land still has a section, township, and range designation; it’s probably just not listed on the deed.
If you’re looking for your block or lot, find the survey of the development (the plat).
It will show blocks and lots, which are different from both street addresses and government lot descriptions.
How can you avoid issues with the legal description?
Are you confused?
You wouldn’t be the first landowner!
Fortunately, title insurance can help protect you and your property rights against any confusion, forgery, or unclear recorded documents.
When you have title insurance, you (or any of your neighbors) have the resources to fix an issue you notice with a legal description.
All you have to do is file a title claim in order to resolve the issue with an experienced title professional.
So, there are two things to note…
Make sure you have title insurance. Lenders require title insurance because it protects their interest in the property.
Remember that it does the same for you as the homeowner.
Ask your title company about a new survey. Not all underwriters will require a new survey for closing.
If you have an outdated survey, you may have an outdated legal description.
Getting a new survey for every real estate transaction can help you avoid any unnecessary issues.
While there will be a fee for that new title, it will ensure that you’re in the clear.
The title agent and surveyor will catch any problems with the legal description and move to clear the cloud on the title before the closing.
Knowing how to read the legal description of a property is a skill many landowners and property buyers overlook.
That said, before you move forward with any sale, you should ensure you and your real estate agent have verified how old the legal description is.
If the legal description has been copied and pasted from an outdated survey, it’s worth your time and money to hire a land surveyor that can update this information for you.
While your title insurance will cover you in a worst-case scenario, it’s always better to handle a legal description of a property before it becomes an issue.
Additional ResourcesIf you are looking to buy affordable land, you can check out our Listings page. And before you buy land, make sure you check out Gokce Land Due Diligence Program. If you are looking to sell land, visit our page on how to Sell Your Land.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.