What is a Legal Description of Property?

Anyone that has transferred ownership of real estate to another party must have prepared a deed and other land documents for the sale to be complete. In this article, we look at what a real estate legal description is, when and why it is needed, and the three types of legal descriptions you may come across.

What Does Legal Description of Property Mean?

A legal description of property is a short document approximately five sentences long that describes a piece of real estate. It is usually accompanied by a survey sketch for a visual understanding of the property boundaries. It is important in real estate transactions because it acts as a unique identifier so that everyone knows the specifics of the property being sold. They are always written by legal professionals, but how a real estate legal description is written varies depending on the type of property and its location. Nevertheless, all legal descriptions of property may contain information on the following elements:

  • Where the boundary lines of the property are located
  • Any defining features of the land
  • The total acreage of the real estate property
  • Information on the county, town, or subdivision

As you can see, the legal description of property is different from the property address. While the latter can help to locate the property on a map, addresses can change. Therefore, using an address as the primary identifier of  land is not always effective. On the other hand, a real estate legal definition helps everyone understand the exact boundaries of the property and how much land is being sold. It may look longer and more complicated, but it is a much more precise way of defining the exact perimeters of the land, which helps to avoid disputes.

When is a Legal Description of Property Needed?

A legal description of property is required when the ownership of real estate is transferred from one individual to another or when a property is being mortgaged. Therefore, the real estate legal definition is usually found in property deeds after the phrase “that certain piece or parcel of land described as followed.” You’ll also find it in mortgage paperwork, sales contracts, and other legal land documents. It ensures all parties understand the boundaries of the piece of real estate being sold and is needed to legally transfer the correct property to the new owner.

The other less common use of a legal description of property is when disputes arise between neighbors pertaining to the boundaries of a property. An unbiased surveyor will look at the legal description and help settle these disputes. This will confirm to whom the area of land belongs, describing where both property boundaries start and end. If either party chooses to do so , the legal description of property can be disputed. In some cases, a surveyor will redefine the property boundaries in such a way that both parties agree upon. It is common for monetary compensation to be given to one party to come to an agreement about who the land belongs to.

Types of Legal Descriptions of Property

As mentioned, how a real estate legal definition of property is written depends on where the land is located and the type and shape of the land. There are three types of legal descriptions of property commonly used: metes and bounds, government survey, and lot and block. Here is a look at each of these types in more detail.

1. Metes and Bounds

Metes and bounds is the oldest method of land measurement used for property descriptions. It is commonly used for land that is irregular in shape, frequently used to describe real estate in rural areas or large tracts of land that is non-subdivision property. These definitions are highly accurate and describe all the boundary lines, lengths, and angles. To do so, they rely on terminology such as monuments, benchmarks, and point of beginning (POB). The definition starts at the POB and then tells you how far and in what direction the boundaries go from there until it reconnects.

2. Government Survey

The measurement system by government survey began in 1785 and is commonly used in the west of the United States. It uses two perpendicular lines, the baseline which runs east to west, and the meridian which runs north to south. They essentially divide the land into rectangles to mark out six-mile-square areas called townships. These townships are then subdivided into tracts and sections. When a piece of land falls only within one boundary, this is a concise method of description. However, it can sometimes become complicated, especially when the real estate property is in more than one township.

3. Lots and Blocks

The third type of definition of property is the lot and block system. This is the most recent and simplest method. However, it can only be used on subdivision property – in other words, land that has been surveyed and split into smaller lots to be sold. This is known as a subdivision plat. The definition always refers to the lot number and the block on which this lot is located. It then ends with the subdivision name, county, and state. A legal description of property example written using the lots and blocks method is as follows: “Lot 22, Block 7, of North Lakes Subdivision #3, according to map or plat thereof recorded in Plat Book 54, Page 8, or the Public Records of Miami-Dade County, Florida.”

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Conclusion

As you can see, the legal definition of property is much more complex and descriptive than a property address. It describes the exact boundaries of the land, essential for the transfer of ownership and mortgage documents. It enables all parties to understand what real estate they legally own and can help to avoid property disputes with neighbors. Which method is appropriate depends on the type of land in question, so the real estate definition always needs to be written by a legal professional that understands the precise systems and reasoning in place. 

Article by Mariia Synytska

Mariia Synytska is Content Lead at Lawrina, a legal portal that projects innovation in law. Mariia manages the content on the website, takes interviews with lawyers and law experts, and looks for the interesting topics for Lawrina's audience. If you would like to be a blogger for Lawrina, you can contact Mariia for all the details via email m.synytska@lawrina.com.

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