Survey Legal Description

Land is complex but valuable commodity. In order to legally treat it as a valuable commodity, a method of separating and clearly identifying parcels has always been necessary since the dawn of civilization as we know it.

A legal description of each parcel of property is required and used for practically every deed and mortgage, to fix the boundaries of the property that is being bought, sold, mortgaged, leased or transferred.

A street address will not suffice, because it does not have the precision required by our legal and economic system.

The legal description is a verbal representation of the property's boundaries, usually based on a survey. The survey is often depicted as a two-dimensional graphic drawing of the parcel. However, it is through a legal description that the survey achieves its full usefulness.

In the United States, three methods of surveying land have developed through the years, with most states using a combination of two of the following:

  1. Metes and bounds. This is the oldest method, adopted from English custom and law; and it is still used by about 20 states.
  2. Government survey system. Also called the "rectangular" or geodetic survey system, this system was established in the U.S. in 1785 to provide a more efficient method of surveying property.
  3. Plat of survey. Also called the recorded plat and the lot-block-tract method, this system is in use in many cities, where land parcels have been subdivided into numbered parcels and clearly recorded for uniform use.

The main product of the survey is the clear identification of a real property's boundaries. But their benefit is the assistance they offer to the general economy and order. In many ways, surveys and surveyors are the backbone of the American real estate economy. Surveys are routinely required with most sale or transfer of real property. They also avoid problems by revealing potential problems, such as encroachments, dangerous subsurface utilities and misaligned buildings.

Each state has a survey standard, usually promoted and exercised by the state's land survey association. There are two most commonly accepted standards in the U.S.:

  • The American Land Title Association (ALTA) standards.
  • The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping standards.

These standards establish minimum details and criteria for precision to be used by land title surveyors, such as the scale(s) to be applied and preferred map orientation (North).

In most real estate transactions, one of two types of surveys is provided by the seller:

  • Survey sketch. The basic survey provides the location and dimension of a parcel of land. This normally shows the parcel relative to its neighboring parcels and/or an adjacent street or marker.
  • Spot survey. Most real estate purchases require a spot survey, which also indicate the location and dimensions of buildings on the identified parcel.

Sometimes, surveys and legal descriptions must take on a three-dimensional approach by including elevation. This is particularly important with high-rise condominiums and air lots.

When a survey must indicate an elevation, it does so based on a datum. A datum is found in most cities and provide an index level from which elevations can be measured. Most American surveyors use the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USGS) datum, which is based on the mean sea level in New York harbor. In addition, the USGS have placed bronze "benchmark" markers across the country that provide elevation above sea level.

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