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What Is a Legal Description of Property?

[Updated: Feb 04, 2021] Jun 12, 2020 by Lena Katz
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The legal description of property is short, to the point, and one of the most important pieces of documentation that exists in real estate record keeping. Its purpose is to provide evidence of exactly the location and boundaries of a parcel of property. It is used in every real estate transaction, to clarify what land -- not what building -- is passing from seller to buyer. It is a unique identifier that is used in all discussions pertaining to land ownership. Yet, someone has to write the legal description of property…and sometimes rewrite it as well.

What is a legal description of property?

A legal description of property is a unique identifier, usually one to two short paragraphs or perhaps five sentences long, containing parameters such as what lots and/or parcels comprise part of the property, lot numbers, land features, parallels and meridians, and total acreage.

Legal descriptions of property differ from place to place in the way they are assessed and written up. Cities and suburbs use recorded plat (lot and block). Rural areas typically use a different system called metes and bounds.

Many legal descriptions of property contain the state, county, and township -- but not all. The second part is a survey sketch.

How is it different from the address?

The street address of a property is more intended to help locate it on a map or GPS system. It's used to identify where a property is but not what its exact boundaries and defining characteristics are. A street address won't tell you when you've stepped over the boundary of a property and are now on the neighbor's land. A legal description can tell you that.

What are the most important elements?

The most important elements of a legal description of property are the survey sketch and description. These two show and tell you:

  • Where boundary lines are located.
  • The name of the parcel or parcels the property spans.
  • County, town, and/or subdivision information.

A legal description using the metes and bounds method needs to have a defined beginning point. It must return to the point of beginning to be valid. This is typically the method used for large, unsubdivided parcels of land.

A legal description in the recorded plat or lot and block method -- which is the primary method in cities and developed suburbs -- must include the lot, block, and subdivision, as well as an accompanying government or metes and bounds description.

Who writes it, and where does the information come from?

A professional land surveyor creates legal descriptions of property.

The most reliable information comes from the legal description on the most recent property deed on file. Property survey maps for tax records are not the same as those for the legal description but can be used for cross-reference.

For more information than what's on file, or to check accuracy, a surveyor would physically go to the property.

When is a legal description of property needed?

Mainly, the only time a legal description of property is needed is during the closing process of a sale. However, when boundary disputes arise between neighbors, the legal description is also very important. Other times a legal description of property is used include ownership conflicts and transfer of land through gifts.

Where can you find it?

You can find the legal description of property in the current deed, which should be on file at the county clerk's or recorder of deeds' office. This entity is also sometimes referred to as the registrar. You can also find it in the sales contract.

Note: The state doesn't keep these records, and neither does any federal entity.

How can the legal description of property help settle boundary disputes?

With a surveyor acting as an unbiased third-party fact-checker and the legal description as the key reference, you can trace exactly where the boundaries of a property are in such a way that both neighbors see what's on file with the county and legally identified as the end of one property and beginning of the other.

Can the legal description of property itself be disputed?

Yes, it can and sometimes is. The next step in a dispute is often to hire yet another land surveyor that both parties agree on to conduct their own version of a land survey and determine the legal description of property that both agree on. If one party feels shorted, monetary compensation for their perceived loss is the easiest way to ensure there are no hard feelings.

Legal descriptions have a long history of usefulness

When reading through legal descriptions of property, you might notice that some are written in a very old-fashioned, almost Colonial syntax while others are written in what seems like industry shorthand. Only an expert at reading them could understand either version. This is because legal descriptions of property have been used for centuries.

As difficult as they are for laypersons to understand, legal descriptions of property are accepted as legal evidence by the authorities and are a key part of any deed or sales contract.

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