Most property owners are aware that their domains have been subdivided, set apart or otherwise separated from larger chunks of surveyed land. Although an individual who owns a quarter-acre lot in an incorporated city may have a very different relationship with his or her land than an individual who owns a 40-acre "quarter-quarter section" in a rural township, the basic means by which their properties have been delineated are likely to be similar. These delineations are responsible for producing the legal property descriptions that define land ownership in the United States.
Legal Property Descriptions Explained
Simply put, a legal property description describes a contiguous section of surveyed land. It can typically be found near the top of an official title, deed or contract that concerns the piece of property in question. In fact, a legal description is a mandatory component of any private or public land transaction.
Although these descriptions were initially set up during the country's early history and remain in force indefinitely, they're not immutable. In accordance with local zoning regulations, a property owner may subdivide his or her holdings for the purposes of selling, renting or improving the pertinent parcels. What's more, the incorporation of a new city or town may result in a new or reworked set of legal descriptions in the affected area.
In the United States, legal descriptions are described using one of the following three methods.
Government Lands Survey
The bulk of the territory that lies west of the Appalachian Mountains has been described in accordance with the massive Government Lands Survey that occurred during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This ingenious system enabled early surveyors to cover large amounts of ground quickly while ensuring that they made accurate measurements and descriptions.
Also known as the rectangular land survey system, this surveying method uses the planet's meridians and lines of latitude to establish "base lines." The intersection between two base lines serves as a focal point for the surrounding region's land descriptions. Under this system, surveyors established perfectly square "townships" that measured six miles on a side. These 36-square-mile blocks could be further subdivided into equally-sized quadrants, sections, quarter sections and quarter-quarter sections. In large swathes of the rural Midwest and Great Plains, the borders of each square-mile section are defined by dirt access roads that may also serve as natural property barriers.
Metes and Bounds/Monuments
Legal descriptions in the 13 original colonies as well as Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky were devised in accordance with this surveying method. "Metes and bounds" isn't simply an archaic-sounding phrase. Whereas a "mete" describes a particular length of distance, a "bound" describes a compass direction. Legal descriptions that follow this framework typically begin from a point of reference at the intersection of two roads or the border of a previously surveyed property.
While the metes and bounds template is more flexible than the rectangular land survey system, it's also more complex and can create easily misinterpreted descriptions. Property owners whose lands are described in terms of metes and bounds are encouraged to consult a land surveyor or property lawyer before subdividing or transferring their holdings.
Many legal descriptions that follow the basic metes and bounds template may use "monuments" to reduce confusion. "Monuments" typically take the form of natural or man-made features of a permanent nature. These might include:
- Existing structures
- Rock outcroppings
Lots and Blocks or Platting
This framework is typically used to subdivide neighborhoods within incorporated cities, waterfront districts and other heavily populated areas. It requires the construction of a plat map that shows the parameters of the individual lots or blocks that make up the subdivision. In most cases, the subdivision itself is given a specific name and subsequently divided up into lots that receive unique numbers. These lots can be regularly or irregularly shaped in accordance with local zoning laws and the subdividing party's whims.
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