If you’ve ever wondered over the deed to
your homestead or the strange designations you’ve seen in your real
estate tax bill, you’ve come face to face with a legal description.
Ever since man started slicing up the
earth and deciding which pieces of it belonged to whom, there has been
a need for defining exactly where any given piece of land might lay.
In early Britain, this was handled in a memorable fashion: the policy
was to take a young child from the neighborhood, lead him one by one,
to the corners of the tract of land in question, then give him a
severe thrashing at each location.
The theory was that the child would long
remember each spot (if beaten with sufficient gusto) and could testify
to its location long into the future.
Today’s coddled children have it easy: we
just record a survey at the county recorder’s office, but when we walk
around the perimeter of a property, we still call it, “beating the
bounds”. That’s how the phrase originated.
In most of the United States, rural land
is described according to what is referred to as Government or
Rectangle Survey, or less frequently, the Public Land Survey System,
or much less frequently, the Aliquot system. It's used in
thirty of the most rural states, including Alaska, but excluding
Here's how that works:
First of all, a series of base-marks has
been established for all of the continental U.S. Lines running north
to south are referred to as "meridians" and east-west lines are called
Here's a map showing all the meridians and
You'll notice that the Meridians converge
as they go north. That, of course, is because of the curvature of the
earth. Most of the effort involved in this sort of land description
relates to different ways to describe squared boundaries on a
spherical globe. It's like trying to put a postage stamp on an
orange, you've got to figure out ways to iron out the wrinkles.
Starting from a baseline and a meridian
line Township Lines and Range Lines lay out a grid of six-mile square
blocks. For example, the first line six miles north of the Base Line
is named Township 1 North of the Base line and the first line six
miles west of the Meridian is Range 1 West of the Principle Meridian.
The block that those two lines form is called Township 1 South, Range
1 East, or T1S,R1E.
Each Township and Range is further divided
into 1-mile squares called Sections. The most important thing to
remember about this stage of the process is that the 36 sections are
numbered and arranged BOTH left to right AND right to left, like this
Then once you get inside a Section, that's
when things really get interesting, or complicated, depending on your
point of view.
Each section can be divided into quarters
and halves. So that a quarter-section is 160 acres and a quarter of a
quarter is 40 acres. In the figure above, the ten-acre square in the
northwest corner is described as "The Northwest Quarter of the
Northwest Quarter of the Northwest Quarter of Section 12 Township 29N,
Range 8 West" which is abbreviated NW1/4NW1/4NW1/4 S12 T29N R8W or
simply NW NW NW 12-29-8.
Got that? Okay, let's try it out.
Suppose I want to look up a legal description that I've found in an
old Warranty Deed: Here it is:
The easiest way to decipher any legal
description is from the end backward.