Definition and uses    

There are many common ways of describing properties: address (100 Main Street), name (Buckingham Palace), and general description (“the south forty acres”). Such informal descriptions are not acceptable for use in public recordation or, generally speaking, in a court of law because they lack both permanence and sufficient information for a surveyor to locate the property.

Even if a legal document or public record refers to an address, the reference is always supported by an accepted legal description.

A legal description of real property is one which accurately locates and identifies the boundaries of the subject parcel to a degree acceptable by courts of law in the state where the property is located.

The general criterion for a legal description is that it alone provides sufficient data for a surveyor to locate the parcel. A legal description identifies the property as unique and distinct from all other properties.

Legal description provides accuracy and consistency over time. Systems of legal description, in theory, facilitate transfers of ownership and prevent boundary disputes and problems with chain of title.

A legal description is required for:

  • public recording
  • creating a valid deed of conveyance or lease
  • completing mortgage documents
  • executing and recording other legal documents

In addition, a legal description provides a basis for court rulings on encroachments and easements.


The three accepted methods of legally describing parcels of real estate are:

  • metes and bounds
  • rectangular survey system, or government survey method
  • recorded plat method, or lot and block method

Since the metes and bounds method preceded the inception of the rectangular survey system, the older East Coast states generally employ metes and bounds descriptions. States in the Midwest and West predominantly use the rectangular survey system. Some states, such as Florida, combine methods.