Understanding the Legal Description of Property by Edward A. Haman, J.D.

Understanding the Legal Description of Property

Including an accurate legal property description is essential when real estate is being transferred or mortgaged.

by Edward A. Haman, J.D.
updated October 27, 2020 ·  min read

In order to transfer ownership of real estate, the deed must contain a unique legal description of the property that identifies it. Similarly, to have a valid mortgage on a property, the mortgage also must contain this legal description.

It will also be used for a title search, and appear on the title insurance policy.

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Read Your Property Deed

All deeds in the property's chain of title should have an identical legal description. It will usually be found on the document after a phrase similar to: "that certain piece or parcel of land described as follows."

If you own property, you should have a copy of the deed from when you acquired the title. If you are buying property, the seller or real estate agent should have a copy of the deed.

Deeds, mortgages, and other land documents are typically recorded with a county government agency, such as the county clerk or the register of deeds. Each document may be found in a particular volume of the records, which is referred to as a "book" or "liber."

All legal descriptions will indicate the county and state, but the way in which the description is worded will vary.

Townships in Property Descriptions

In most states, property descriptions often include a reference to a township. This goes back to a land survey plan developed by the federal government in 1785.

This plan established various north-south lines, called meridians, and various east-west lines, called baselines. This is why you sometimes see a road called Base Line Road.

A township is normally a square that is six miles on each side, and is designated by its relationship to where a meridian and a baseline meet.

For example, a township that is the fourth township north of the baseline and the second township east of the meridian will be designated as "Township 4 North, Range 2 East." This may be abbreviated "T4N, R2E." The township may also have a name, which may be included.

Each township is divided into 36 numbered sections, which measure one mile on each side. Therefore, you may see a property description that includes a reference to the township and section, such as:

"That part of the Northwest 1/4 of the Southeast 1/4 of Section 35, Town 19 North, Range 13 West."

Such descriptions can get quite complicated, especially when a piece of property crosses a section or township boundary.

Including Subdivision Plats

When a developer plans a housing subdivision, a survey is conducted to measure and identify the separate lots that will be sold. This is known as a subdivision plat.

There will be a plat map, which shows the location and number of each lot. The county may have separate plat books in which subdivisions are recorded.

For platted subdivisions, the property description is simplified. The property description used in deeds and other land documents will refer to the name of the subdivision and the lot number. For example:

"Lot 42, Block 3, of North Lakes Subdivision #1, according to map or plat thereof as recorded in Plat Book 62, Page 9, of the Public Records of Orange County, Florida."

Using Metes and Bounds

Where the property is not subject to a subdivision plat, and especially if it is irregular in shape, you will see more complex descriptions that are designed to allow a surveyor to measure and mark the property boundary.

This is very common in rural areas, and is called a metes and bounds description. It will start by describing a point where the measurement begins, which may be abbreviated POB, for point of beginning. It typically includes township information.

For example:

"Beginning at a point marked by a survey marker on the South side of Jackson Road 150 feet East from the corner formed by the intersection of the East boundary of State Highway 39 and the South boundary of Jackson Road; thence East 90 degrees 500 feet; thence South 450 feet; thence West 250 degrees 450 feet; thence direct to the point of beginning; situated in Section seven in Township Twenty North, Range Eleven East, Perry Township, Delaware County, Indiana."

This is a simple metes and bounds description. They can be much more complex for irregularly shaped parcels.

Supplemental Property Information

In addition to the legal description, you may see other identifying information on a land document. This is most often the street address and a property tax identification number.

The street address is basically the mailing address of the property, which includes the street number and name, city or town, state, and zip code.

For purposes of keeping property tax records, the local tax assessor's office usually attaches an identification number to each parcel. This may be called by various names, such as "Tax I.D. Number," "Parcel Number," or "Folio Number."

Neither the street address, nor the tax number, is a sufficient description to transfer or encumber property.

The information provided above should help you understand legal property descriptions. However, for the purposes of buying or selling property, it is usually not necessary to completely understand the details of land descriptions. What is important is that the deed, mortgage, or other land document contains an accurate property description.

Carefully reading the legal description in your document, and comparing it with the legal description in a previous deed, will help assure that your document contains the appropriate legal description.

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Edward A. Haman, J.D.

About the Author

Edward A. Haman, J.D.

Edward A. Haman is a freelance writer, who is the author of numerous self-help legal books. He has practiced law in Hawa… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.