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The Language of Land: How to Read Legal Descriptions of Property

In real estate, understanding the nuances embedded in property documents can be daunting. “The Language of Land: How to Read Legal Description of Property” aims to demystify the complex jargon and intricate details in legal property descriptions. This comprehensive guide will enlighten you on how to read legal descriptions of property, ensuring that buyers, sellers, and real estate enthusiasts can navigate these crucial documents with confidence and precision. Whether you’re a seasoned investor or a first-time buyer, mastering how to read legal descriptions of property is a vital skill that can prevent misunderstandings and secure your investments. Join us as we explore the language of the land in an accessible and informative manner.

Real estate investors Steve Daria and Joleigh emphasize the importance of mastering the language of land to understand how to read legal descriptions of property accurately. Their expertise highlights how this knowledge is crucial for making informed investment decisions.

How to Read Legal Descriptions of Property?

To read a legal description of the property, start by identifying the type of description used, which could be lot and block, metes and bounds, or rectangular survey system.

Then, follow the provided details sequentially to understand the precise boundaries and location of the property.

how to read legal descriptions of property

Unraveling the Terminology

Legal descriptions come in different flavors, but you’ll encounter two main categories — metes and bounds descriptions and lot and block systems.

These may sound like ancient spells for the uninitiated, but they are different ways to draw the lines around a piece of land.

Metes and Bounds

Metes and bounds date back to colonial America, when surveyors walked the boundary, using natural features like rivers and certain trees as landmarks (‘metes’) and marking the distance between these points with actual measurements (‘bounds’).

Here is an example of a metes and bounds description:

Beginning at a point in the southern boundary of John Street, which said point is 50.03 feet easterly from Yosemite Avenue…”

These measurements and bearings are artfully precise, often including angles and compass directions. While they may seem austere, metes and bounds descriptions have a poetic quality, recounting a property’s landscape as it has been passed down through the ages.

Lot and Block 

The lot and block system, by contrast, is geometric and urban. It is a shorthand developed for the broad streets and gridded city blocks that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries, crunching down properties into numbered lots and representing them on maps.

A typical lot and block description might read:

Lot 7, Block 2, Bayside Subdivision, as recorded in Plat Book 25, Page 67, of the Public Records of County, Florida.

While less verbose, this system can be just as precise, mainly when dealing with lots. It’s the principle behind tract housing and business park development, making legal descriptions in urban areas clean and concise.

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Deciphering Deeds and Titles

Deeds and titles are the scrolls on which these legal descriptions are written, and they grant the magic of property ownership. They come in various forms, each with its purpose and meaning.

Warranty Deeds

A warranty deed is a powerful tool. It establishes legal description and ‘warrants’ that the property rights are clear and the seller will defend them against any claims. It provides airtight ownership security for the buyer.

Quitclaim Deeds

A quitclaim deed is a more casual affair — it conveys whatever interest the seller may have in the property.

As such, the legal description is necessary but does not ensure the same level of title insurance as a warranty deed.

how to read legal descriptions property

Trust Deeds

Trust deeds are used when a property is bought with a loan. They involve three parties — the borrower, the lender, and a trustee — and the trust deed serves as security for the loan. The legal description of the property is central to defining the collateral.

Knowing which deed you need is fundamental, and understanding the legal descriptions within them is even more critical.

Relating to the Real Estate Market

The meticulousness with which legal descriptions are crafted directly affects the market. Zoning laws, property taxes, and development plans hinge on these borders.

A misplaced ‘hereunto’ or ‘thence’ could delay a construction project, halt a permitting process, or even derail a sale.

Zoned in or Zoned Out

Legal descriptions pinpoint precisely where a property lies in the grand municipal quilt of zoning laws.

Is it residential, commercial, agricultural, or industrial? Can it be rezoned, and if so, at what cost and risk?

Taxing Times

Property taxes vary not just from city to city but from street to street. And it all starts with the legal description.

Assessors use this information to apply the respective tax rates, exemptions, and special assessments.

Mapping the Territory

Cerebrally walking the perimeter of a property isn’t just for surveyors and old-timey deeds. Modern technology has brought mapping to the masses, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy.

GPS and Aerial Imaging

Global Positioning Systems and aerial photographs have revolutionized our ability to locate and describe property.

GPS technology, which is accurate to within meters, has made the old metes and bounds descriptions even more precise, and aerial imaging can provide a clear view of where that ‘old oak’ sits.

Geodesy and GIS

The science of measuring and understanding the Earth — geodesy — combined with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has taken mapping to the next level.

We can now layer flood zones, environmental features, and even underground utilities onto property maps, enriching the context of legal descriptions.

The Role of Technology

Title companies, surveyors, and real estate agents are harnessing technology to streamline the creation and verification of legal descriptions.

GIS Mapping Software

GIS software is becoming a tool for visualizing and sharing legal descriptions. It allows for interactivity, layering, and up-to-date aerial imagery to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Blockchain and Smart Contracts

The brave new world of blockchain technology is eyeing real estate with a glint of promised efficiency.

Smart contracts with terms coded into them may one day automate title transfers with immutable legal descriptions.

Protips for Legal Literacy

For those knee-deep in the world of real estate or who are about to take the plunge, here are some tips to keep in your back pocket when navigating legal descriptions:

Document All Changes

Document everything if there’s a variance, easement, or border adjustment. Legal changes can be easy, but the paperwork should be as bulletproof as any other part of the description.

Triple-Check for Consistency

Always triple-check legal descriptions for consistency; if you’re unsure or need more clarification, recheck them.

Stay in the Know

Local rules change, and with them, so do legal descriptions. Stay informed by attending local planning meetings, following changes in zoning laws, and asking the right questions.

Applying Your Knowledge

Armed with this understanding of legal descriptions, what can you do with it? Quite a lot.

Negotiating Power

A clear, precise legal description can be a powerful negotiating point for the buyer or the seller. It can also determine the property’s value and potential uses.

Investment Potential

Knowing how to read legal descriptions of property is crucial when investing in property, whether flipping, managing a portfolio, or buying a dream home.

Legal Finesse

Engaging a reasonable attorney when dealing with complex legal descriptions is essential. Ideally, someone with a real estate specialization who can read between the lines — both literally and figuratively — of your legal documents.


Legal descriptions stand between you and your property. They are not a barrier but a bridge — a linguistic handshake between real estate’s past, present, and future. It’s more than deciphering the fine print; it’s grasping the profound narrative that the text conveys about the landscape. Whether you yearn for the rolling acreage of a metes and bounds homestead or the crisp geometry of a lot and block abode, knowing the terminology will make your real estate experience more prosperous and more secure.

Fluent in the language of land, you’ll find that legal descriptions are keys that unlock doors to opportunity, security, and prosperity. For the diligent literati of real estate, these descriptions are not just words on a page; they are the foundation of an entire industry, the roots of a home, and the horizon of a future.

**NOTICE:  Please note that the content presented in this post is intended solely for informational and educational purposes. It should not be construed as legal or financial advice or relied upon as a replacement for consultation with a qualified attorney or CPA. For specific guidance on legal or financial matters, readers are encouraged to seek professional assistance from an attorney, CPA, or other appropriate professional regarding the subject matter.

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