Types of Descriptions

There are three main types of descriptions. Essentially, a good description will describe one and only one parcel of land.

Metes and Bounds

The metes and bounds method describes the boundary lines of the parcel. This usually begins at the corner of the parcel (known as the point of beginning), and direction is made by reference to the true north and south lines of a compass (e.g., North 90 degrees west is straight west). For each direction, you measure how far the boundaries travel in that direction. Curves are based on circles, and irregular boundaries may be carved based on geographical features. To complete a sufficient legal description, the drawer needs to return to the point of beginning (called the close). In other words, this method looks at the measurements and angles of the boundaries to draw out a parcel of land.

Even the systems below could be described in metes and bounds, but the other methods tend to be shorter and are still proper legal descriptions.

Surveyors employ this system.

Government Survey System

This system was developed by Thomas Jefferson. What it does is essentially divides the United States into squares based on intersections of longitude (principal meridian P.M.: north-south) and latitude (baseline: east-west). The units are called townships and sections. A township is a 6×6 mile square with 36 sections inside (each a 1×1 mile square, or 640 acres). The description denotes the location of the township in reference to the baseline (known as the range) and the P.M. Sections can further be divided into subsections based on the description. There subsections can further be described by denoting where the parcel is located in relation to the center of the section.

An example of this description could be: NW 1/4, § 1, T.3N, R.2W, 5th P.M. This translates to: The Northwest quarter of the first section of the township 3 North and range 2 West of the 5th principal meridian.

Most farm land is described in this way.


This system is a description of the lots of land, as set out on subdivision maps as part of the public land records.

An example of this description would be: LOT 3 in [Subdivision] PLAT 4, now included and being a part of [City, County, State].

Most residential and commercial land is described in this way.


A survey is to look over the land (both physical and written) to ensure that the boundaries are correctly described. Most of this is for legal purposes, to ensure that the court knows who owns what. There are several reasons why to have a survey conducted:

  1. To show the existence of the property as legally described
  2. Determine the relationship between adjoining parcels: who owns what and make sure that there are no gaps
  3. To show any discrepancies between the deed and the physical property
  4. Determine whether fences and other property improvements are in the right location
  5. To discover unrecorded easements
  6. Understand how water usage or changes may affect boundary lines

Adequacy of the Description

The legal description of the property must satisfy the statute of frauds to be valid. However, the question is just how in depth the description needs to be for the deed, the purchase agreement, or other documentation. This sufficiency question is determined by the courts in each jurisdiction. But it is always better to be safe than sorry. Attorneys should error on the side of being more descriptive rather than generalized. Below are examples of what may happen otherwise.

In Contracts

TR-One, Inc. v. Lazz Development Co.

945 N.Y.S.2d 416 (N.Y. Sup. 2012).

TR-One, Inc. is the plaintiff who lost and appealed.

The parties entered into a contract which Lazz Development Co. backed out of. When the plaintiff filed the lawsuit, the defendant sought summary judgement, arguing the description was too general causing the contract to be void. Below is the description:

Approximately 48 acres of vacant land located at 89 Mount Tom Road, Pawling, New York.

The specific plot of land was to be determined later. The court said that it was impossible to determine with any certainty which parcel of land was involved in the contract. Consequently, the statute of frauds was not satisfied and summary judgment was merited.

In Deeds

Walters v. Tucker

281 S.W.2d 843 (Missouri 1955).

Plaintiffs lost and appealed.


Whether the trial court errored in hearing evidence outside the deed to determine the meaning of how much land was actually conveyed.


When there is no ambiguity in the deed, stick to what the deed says.


There was no ambiguity in the deed, thus the trial court error in hearing the additional evidence and finding judgment for the defendant.


This is a dispute between two next door neighbors and the border of their property. Depending on who wins will determine the difference between an 8 feet wide parcel of land that either goes up to the wall of the defendant’s home or encroaches on the plaintiff’s driveway.

In the deed, it stated that the land to be sold was 50 feet West of Lot 13. However, the defendant said the parties meant the line to be drawn from the road instead, 8 feet farther East.


The defendant argues that the ambiguity comes from the application, and the deed should be dually interpreted from the words and how the ground functions. However, the court refuses to adopt that approach. Instead, the deed is clear, the Eastern border of Lot 13 is clear, making it a simple determination to know where the Western border should be (50 feet West of the Eastern border).

McGhee v. Young

606 So. 2d 1215 (Fla. Ct. App. 1993).

McGhee is the plaintiff who lost and appealed.


Which has more authority to determine the border of property, physical monuments in the ground or descriptions in the deed?


The monuments hold more authority than descriptions in the deed.




This is a dispute between two neighbors who share a northern border and southern border respectfully. The issue here is that the physical monuments placed on the property (and where the fence was located), did not conform with the metes and bounds description in the deed (placing the boundary closer to the defendant’s and over some of their personal property).

Presently, the plaintiffs are seeking to evict the defendants, because some of their personal affects (sewage) is over the property line.


Most of the time in the legal world, paper controls and physical aspects need to conform to the physical reality. However, that is not the case here. It is too impractical to request everyone to alter their physical monuments to line up with a paper description, especially when they have been relying on those lines for years. Thus, physical monuments in the land will trump over descriptions in the deed.


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

Will Laursen

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