Legal Property Descriptions

Can someone provide a quick class on how to read stuff such as this:

PE 13 6 PT THE N 2 RDS OF NW 1/4 OF NW 1/4 SEC 13 T19N R13W. 1 A.

Or this:

PE 28 (32) PART N 1/2 SE 1/4; BEG AT A PT 333 FT S AND 1471 FT W OF THE E 1/4 POST; W 100 FT; S 25 FT; E 100 FT; N TO P.O.B. SEC 28 T19N R13W. .06 A.

Or this:

CV 32 16-7A W150’ OF S1/2 SW1/4 SE1/4 SE1/4 SEC 32 T18N R12W. 1.13 A M/L

I’m sure there are other examples, and some of it’s quite plain. Is this “surveyor language” or just “legal land description language” or what? I’d like to learn enough to be able to understand other examples, not just those above.


Legal descriptions in the US use a grid system, with each unit as nearly equal as possible. Because of the curvature of the earth, and some other issues, adjustments have to be made.

If you read the legal description right to left, then “R” is range, which is the north-south line, “T” is the particular township with a standard measure of 6 by 6 miles and “S” is section, a 1 by 1 miles tract, containing 640 acres.

The numbering of sections within any particular township is uniform, as per this:

You should proceed reading the description from right to left from that point to understand the location or amount of land the description contains.

Part of the North 2 Rods of the Northwest quarter of the northwest quarter of section 13 in Township 19 north, Range 13 west

That is, a portion of a band 2 Rods (33 feet) wide across the Northwestern quarter of the northwestern quarter of Section 13 in this Township. 1 acre total area.

This describes the boundary of a lot in the North half of the Southeastern quarter of section 28 in Township 19 north, Range 13 west. It starts at a pont 333 feet south and 1471 feet west of the midpoint of the section’s east side. From there, you draw a line extending 100 feet to the west, then 25 feet to the south, then 100 feet east, then back to the point of beginning. It should contain 0.06 acres.

I work with thses sorts of descriptions, mostly from legal descriptions on county land records. Generally, for western states, they will tell you the Section, Township and Range, and what fraction (or what fraction of a fraction of a fraction) the land is in, and how to draw a boundary around it. They’ll use feet generally, but archaic units like rods and chains and varas are not uncommon.

When reading one, it is best to work from the largest parcel to the smallest, that is, find the Township and Range, then the section, then the fraction of the section, and then the starting point.

While these examples use simple directionals to outline the properties, sometimes just cutting off a strip of land with a phrase like “the east 150 feet,” or a boundary line with all right angles, many use bearings to describe angles. That is, you will see a phrase like “thence N 74.25 W 156 feet,” which means that from the previous point, the next point is reached by facing north, rotating 74.25 degrees to the west, then going forward 156 feet.

A common practice is to use the fractional section lines and their intersections as starting points. A quarter corner (or POST as above) is where the quarter-sections meet on the indicated side. Descriptions also start from outside corners of the section, or just about any corner the suveyor finds conveinient.

These types of descriptions become more complex in eastern states and my own Texas since the STR system was not used to parcel out the land there. The same rules apply, but become more complex as you wonder where the iron nail in the south side of the large hickory tree is, or some other nigh-impossible to find landmark.

As has been pointed out, the township and range info isn’t used here in the East. You’re much more likely to see something like:

“Starting at a point (or notched tree or other “monument”) and proceeding …” with the metes and bounds description following. Yes, there are still deed references to notched trees or a pin in the hickory tree.

Wow! This is great stuff. I meant to ask one more part of this. Are parcel numbers (for example, 16-11-22-101-009, some type of standardized format? I’ve seen them listed as “SIDWELL” numbers, but aside from “sidwell friends” haven’t learned much about them. Can I gleen any information from just the number, or is the number arbitrary?

A parcel number is assigned (typically) by the county Auditor’s office and is used to identify a piece of land for tax and ownership purposes. The parcel number is most often made up of a series of numbers which indicate where in the Auditor’s records the original deed to a particular piece of property can be located usually in the form of Volume Number (or liber) & Page Number.

Taxing property numbers like “16-11-22” will often refer to the Lot, Block and
subdivision number(this being assigned by county or city) or the section, township
and range(mostly by county). I don’t know if that is “SIDWELL” or not.

Here’s a page with more info and graphics on the retangular survey method:
Just as a side note, the county lines were influenced by the survey method and
that’s why the diminsions are often in multiples of 6 miles, an attempt to kept
a township in a particular county.

Except that’s not the type of number you given as an example, is it? Here’s more info about the Sidwell system for numbering parcels.

Tax Parcel numbers are increasingly based on Geographic Information System (GIS) data, but that’s not always the case.

The last locality I worked for mapped the county and then assigned the parcel ID number based on the Tax Map Page, then a straight numerical listing. Subdivisions were given what we called “double circle numbers,” then the parcel number. The double circle number came directly from the graphic symbol used to identify the subdivision - a number with two circles around it.

For instance, if I owned lot 1 in the only subdivision that was mapped on a page 1 of the Tax Map book, my Tax Parcel ID would be 1-(1)-1 (Tax Map-Double Circle Number of Subdivision-Lot). Section letters may also be added to represet a particular section of a subdivision if it the entire subdivision was not platted at the same time.

Wow. This is great stuff. You know I’ve lived in townships (i.e., I woud live in a place called “Ft. Gratiot Twp.”) virtually all my life and had no clue what they even were.

On my last road trip, a hotel clerk asked me what “Twp.” meant in my “city” name, and I answered (of course) “township.” She replied something to the effect that one learns something new every day. I’ve just verified that Nevada is, in fact, broken into townships, too, but apparently it’s not used as a means of governance for unincorporated areas.

So to slightly diverge my own post… how common is the following type of arrangement in states outside of Michigan (which is my own state, by the way): we have cities, towns, and villages which are incorporated entities, although we in Michigan don’t use the term “incorporated” like they do in other states. I guess if you’re designated a town or city or village, it’s just assumed; it’s part of what makes you that status. If you don’t live in the incorporated part, you always live “in the township.” A populous-enough township will have its own ZIP code (and hence mailing address – it used to be the closest city’s name and ZIP code). Also a township will have its own government, except that cities that are in or across geographical townships aren’t affected, hence my never realizing before now that a township wasn’t a government entity but a geographical one. Aside from that, we also have county government. — So would I be right in assuming that in other states where they look at me crosseyed when I mention townships (even though they have them!), their only local government would be the county? So if “The Dukes of Hazzard” took place in Michigan, we’d probably be talking about “Hazzard Township” rather than “Hazzard County”?

Well, I guess most of my last post can be ignored. Wikipedia has a lot of information about townships of all sorts and in many parts of the country. Just when you think you know everything that’s interesting to know…

In Ohio, cities are populations centers of greater than 5000 people and are required to incorporate; villages are population centers of fewer than 5000 people.

Interestingly (maybe), here in Toledo, OH, there are two non-contiguous areas of Washington Township which are enclaves; that is, they are entirely surrounded by the incorporated city of Toledo. Washington Township relies on the city of Toledo for police and fire services, but yet maintains its own public school system wholly independent of the city of Toledo’s public schools. In fact, the Washington Township high school, is the largest high school in the area. The townships which surround the incroporated city of Toledo all have their own governmental structure usually headed up by a Board of Trustees.

Probably true. In the Northwest Territory (basically those states north of the Ohio River), the township tends to be more involved in law enforcement than the county.

In New England and New York State, the space-filling subdivisions of a county are towns rather than townships, and have local governments. In North Carolina, like some other regions, townships exist merely for land-title and related purposes, and have no governmental existence (I lived here for five years before I found out what township I live in). It’s probably important to point out that what are in some places villages, or the larger of them, are in other places towns, a quite different usage from the town=township usage of the Northeast.

With regard to legal property descriptions, what is essential is that the land be described in a way that can be understood by anyone interested in what its limits are. If the description is “the entirety of Granite Island” and “Granite Island” is a name with some history understood by most local residents to mean that particular island, that would actually be sufficient. I recently processed some warranty deeds for which the property description was, in its entirety, the tax parcel number and the acreage it purported to contain. The advantage of metes-and-bounds description (or in the Midwest the township-section-and-range description) is that it makes 100% clear precisely what land with what limitations is contained in the conveyance of property. “From a marked point a given distance in a given direction, then a given distance in a different direction, then yet another distance in a third direction, then a final distance in a fourth direction back to the point of starting” clearly defines the perimeter of a given piece of land, when the distances and directions are properly filled in. (“From an iron pipe set in the margin of Seventh Street a distance of three hundred seventy-five feet from its southern terminus, north 75 degrees 03 minutes 38 seconds for a distance of two hundred three feet, thence north 01 degree 15 minutes 00 seconds east for a distance of seventy-eight feet…” will give precise definition of property bounds that anyone with common sense and the right equipment can duplicate forty years down the road when nobody remains alive who wrote that description. This does not hold true for “the southern third of Jacob Henry’s east pasture, excepting ten feet along the stream” … when Jacob Henry’s farm has been a Target store, its parking lot, and an apartment complex for 25 years now.