Legal Description of Property

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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 and, 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. Even those 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. You will mostly find lot and block legal descriptions within city boundaries.

Metes and Bounds Legal Description

A more common legal description is metes and bounds. It involves using the public surveying system, which starts from when the United States issued its patent, right after snatching land away from Native Americans. It uses townships and ranges. Land is divided into sections, and each section is 640 acres. The legal description pinpoints the location of the subject property within its particular Township, Range, and Section, which might also involve degrees and distance.

For example, each township is 6 miles square or 23,040 acres, and contains 36 sections, each being 1 mile square, approximately, or 640 acres. Townships run north and south and ranges run east and west, each being a line that runs at right angles to each other. The township and range system was adopted in the Governmental Land Surveys in 1785 and used ever since.

Think of this as a big grid of squares. 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.

To designate a particular parcel of property, if it is an evenly divided parcel, one might refer to an area encompassing 20 acres as the S 1/2 of the SW 1/4 of the SE 1/4 of Section 32, T1N. This would be a very easy parcel of land to find on a map. It becomes more complicated when metes and bounds is required to explain the location.

In a metes and bounds legal description, one would designate the starting point, also known as the POB, the point of beginning. For example, you might begin at the SW corner of the SE 1/4 of Section 32, T1N and go a certain number of feet at 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.

Not Always Exact

Using a protractor, you can draw your own legal description of 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 in the public records. Today, most of that is completed via 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 could that happen? Often it's by accident. A homeowner builds a garage on a line he thinks is the property boundary but is off by two feet, and that can push a neighbor's lot line by two feet. This 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 a lot and block.

Other common acronyms are PIQ (Property in Question) and POB (Point of Beginning). Any property you are talking about or giving directions to becomes the Property in Question. When you start to describe a metes and bounds legal description, you always start with the Point of Beginning.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.