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Real Estate
Trainers, Inc.

Real Estate
Principles Course
Internet Edition

Lesson 12
Section 1

Legal Descriptions
Narrative Text

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When property is sold or mortgaged, it is important to describe the parcel of land accurately, especially if there are several nearby properties under the same ownership. The property must be identified so that a competent surveyor can locate that particular parcel. It is critical that it be identified in such a manner that the description could apply to only the property in question. Such a description, which will be accepted by a court of law, is known as a legal description.

There are three such methods of describing property:

(1) metes and bounds;

(2) plat map (recorded tract map or lot and block); and

(3) U.S. government rectangular survey.

Notice that the street address of a property is not considered a legal description of the property.


This type of legal description is the oldest of the three. It is widely used in the eastern part of the United States and in Texas. It involves the use of surveying techniques. The surveyor will pick some point of beginning (p.o.b.) and describes the boundaries by going around the parcel clockwise from point to point until the description returns to the point of beginning. For example, the metes and bounds legal description of George Washington's property on Mount Vernon is as follows:

...half of five thousand acres formerly Lay'd Out for Collo Nicholas Spencer and the father of Capt. Lawrence Washington. Bounded as follows Beginning by the River Side at the Mouth of Little Hunting Creek according to the several courses and Meanders thereof nine hundred Eighty and Six Poles to a mark'd A Corner Tree standing on the West side of the South Branch being the main branch of said Hunting Creek. From there by a lyne of Mark'd trees west eighteen Degrees South across a Woods to the Dividing Lyne as formerly made Between Madam Francis Spencer and Captain Lawrence Washington and from hence W by the said Lyne to ye River and with the River and all the Courses and Meanders of the said River to the Mouth of the Creek afor'sd.

In the context of metes and bounds legal descriptions, the word "metes" refers to measurements of length, such as feet, yards, rods, etc. (In the above legal description, the word "Poles" is also called a "rod" and refers to a length of 16 feet.) The word "bounds" refers to directions, or boundaries.

There are certain inherent weaknesses associated with metes and bounds legal descriptions. These legal descriptions often use monuments as part of the description, especially for use as a point of beginning. A monument may be natural, such as a tree or a rock or a river, or it may be artificial (man-made), such as a road or canal or iron pipe placed in the ground. These monuments can sometimes be destroyed. For example, it is not uncommon for a point of beginning to be something along the lines of "the old oak tree on the Miller farm". At the time the legal description was written, probably everyone knew where the Miller farm was located and which tree was referred to. Many years later, however, the farm may not be owned by the Miller family and the tree may have died and been removed.

When a metes and bounds legal description is written by a competent surveyor, metes may be measured down to one-hundredth of a foot, the bounds are described by degrees, minutes and seconds. There are 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes in a degree, and 60 seconds in a minute. The bearing of a line is described as being a deflection from the north-south line. A direction such as 45 degrees east of north would be written NORTH 45 EAST (N45E). A metes and bounds description is usually lengthy, complex and not readily understood except by a surveyor or an engineer. A bench mark is a fixed point used by a surveyor to indicate a specific location.

Metes and bounds legal descriptions are not frequently used in California, with one important exception. Developers will very often use a metes and bounds legal description for an entire subdivision, but will then use the recorded tract map system for the individual lots being sold.

The second method of describing real property is called the plat map system (or subdivision and lot, lot-block-tract system, or recorded map system). When land is subdivided, the first step is for the subdivider to have a survey made of the property and a map drawn showing the location of each parcel. This map is then submitted to the local authorities, and, when approved, it is recorded as an official map. A lot on that map may be identified by referring to the recorded map. Thus, a legal description of a specific lot might be "Lot Number 8 in Block E of Tract 4142 of the Garfield Subdivision, as recorded in Map Book Number 3416, Pages 1-11, in the County of Los Angeles, State of California."

The plat map that is recorded would identify each specific lot by means of a metes and bounds description, showing the length of the sides of the parcel, as well as the direction of the lines. The map also shows the building setbacks required by the zoning laws. Lots which are contiguous to each other are lots which touch or abut at any point.
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