Legal Descriptions

Where is it? What is the address? How do I get there? These are all different ways to find out where a certain parcel of land or building is located. Knowing the address is often the easiest way to find a place. If you know the address, you can use your GPS to find the place.

You can even use Google Earth to get a satellite picture of what the place looks like from space, or from the street. If you have an address, the United States Post Office will deliver mail there, and Federal Express and UPS will deliver packages there. But an address is not legally sufficient to describe a particular parcel of land to be conveyed or mortgaged. For that, you need the true “legal description” of the land.

The original way to describe a parcel of land was to use landmarks and distances. First, you would find a certain identifiable spot, such as a large old tree, or a particular large rock. This was your Point of Beginning. From that spot, you would walk a certain distance until you reached another identifiable spot, such as a creek or road, then turning north, south, east or west, you would continue on in this manner until you returned to your first spot, your Point of Beginning. By doing this, you would have walked the boundary of your property, from Point of Beginning, to landmark, to landmark, etc., making essentially a circle, or trapezoid, or whatever irregular shape your property was. This type of description is still used today, and is called a “metes and bounds” description. Surveyors now use very accurate laser instruments to measure precisely the angles and distances, but the idea is still the same that was used when George Washington was surveying the Virginia countryside. An example of a metes and bounds description would be something like this: “Located in Washington County, Virginia, and being described as follows: Beginning at a large hickory tree located on the east line of Old County Road, then running south along Old County road a distance of 380 feet to a 6 ft. fence post; then running in an easterly direction along a wire fence a distance of 824 feet to the edge of a creek; then northwesterly along said creek a distance of 340 feet to a fence post in the bank of the creek; then west along a wooden rail fence approximately 780 feet to the Point of Beginning.” Today’s metes and bounds descriptions are much more precise than this, and measure distance down to the tenths or hundredths of an inch, and measure angles to the precise degree, but, it’s still the same – it’s still a point to point description.

Metes and bounds descriptions are still used quite often today, primarily for very large tracts of land, as well as for commercial property, where the property is a stand-alone site. However, in the western United States, where the lands were set up in grids based on townships, the legal descriptions are often based on a description of which part of the township the property lies in. Townships are divided into quarters, and then each quarter is divided into quarters, and so on and so on. An example of a legal description in a township based system would be like this: “Being the East ½ of the Northeast ¼ of the Southeast ¼ of the Southeast ¼ of the Northeast ¼ of Township Number 16, Lincoln County, Nebraska.”

Most residential properties are now part of subdivisions which were one time large parcels of open land, but which have now been divided into specific blocks and then into specific lots within each block. Subdivisions are created by registering the proposed plan with the county officials. Local authorities have different requirements, but most states and counties require the developer to submit his plan to the county for approval. The subdivision plan will contain provisions for roads and utility easements, and set out the size and shape of each individual lot. Each lot will be located within a named block, and will have its own unique lot number. Once a subdivision has been approved by the local authorities, the lots can then be conveyed by referring to the lot and block within the subdivision, and giving the recording information of the subdivision. For example, you would use something like this as your new legal description: “Lot 3, Block A, of the Sunny Acres Subdivision, recorded in Book 164, Page 323 of the Land Records of Washington County, Virginia."

And lastly, once you have described your property using the correct legal description, it is usually all right to add the property address just for good measure.