There are three main methods of describing real property for deeds and other conveyances; metes and bounds, the coordinate system of the U.S. Public Land Survey System and the lots and/or blocks on a subdivision plat.
Most older deeds use the metes and bounds description. Here is an example from an old Massachusetts deed:
Modern metes and bounds descriptions usually do not rely on naturally occurring landmarks, the legal descriptions start with a reference to a known surveyed point of origin. One of the basic issues with any metes and bounds description is that the description "close," that is, the boundary line of the property returns back to the point of beginning. It is interesting that over the years I have found many legal descriptions that did not close.
The U.S. Public Land Survey System is illustrated by the map at the beginning of this post. The Continental Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 and then the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 to control the survey, sale, and settling of the new lands. Wikipedia.
The description of a particular ten acre (40,000 m²) parcel of land under this system might be given as NW1/4 SW1/4 SE1/4 SEC 22 T2S R3E. From Wikipedia, here is the interpretation of the legal description:
The elements of such descriptions are interpreted from right to left, so we are describing a plot of land in the township that is the third east of the Range Line (R3E) and the second south of the base line (T2S). We are also looking at section 22 in that township (refer to the grid above). Next that section is divided into quarters (160 acres each), and we should be in the SE quarter section. That section is divided again in quarters (40 acres) and the description calls for the SW quarter. Last in this description, it is quartered again (into 10-acre (40,000 m2) plots), as we want the NW quarter. So, in language, the example plot is the NW quarter of the SW quarter of the SE quarter of section 22 of the township that is the second south of the base line and the third east of the range line. Wikipedia.In the subdivision plat system, the location of the subdivision itself is usually described either through metes and bounds or through the rectangular survey system of the U.S. Public Land Survey. Lots within the subdivision are numbered and are referenced to the recorded plat or map of the subdivision.
I will discuss this in greater detail in future posts.