Real Property Descriptions Marking Location, Location, Location
The interests one may own in real property vary considerably—for example, one may own an undivided fractional interest, a leasehold, a life estate, or fee simple, just to name a few—but one constant is that the property so owned must be described such that it can be identified with reasonable certainty, separate and apart from all other property on the planet. Here, we will explore a few of the most common types of property descriptions.
Metes and Bounds. Metes and bounds are generally considered to be the “gold standard” for property descriptions because the system can be used to describe any size or shape of property, regardless of how simple or complex. This type of legal description begins at a certain point on the ground and uses a series of surveyor “calls” or field notes, which state the distance and bearing to the next point, essentially tracing the boundary of the property, much like a children’s connect-the-dots picture. Each point along the boundary is typically represented by a physical feature that can be located on the ground, called a “monument.” Monuments can be either natural, such as a permanent geographical formation, or manmade, such as a street intersection. When there are no existing monuments to reference, the surveyor may create one specifically for the description underway, typically by driving a 5/8” iron rod into the ground, adorned with an identification stamp on the exposed end, which is notated in the description.
Lot and Block Number. The owner of a large tract of land may wish to develop it into a neighborhood or business park by subdividing it into several smaller lots. Typically, the boundary of the large tract is described by metes and bounds, and the smaller lots are depicted in a plat of the large tract that is recorded in the real property records of the county where the property is located. If property is subdivided in this manner, it may be described by referring to its lot and block number within the platted subdivision, such as “Lot 1, Block 1, Your Subdivision, Your County.”
Reference to another recorded instrument. When property is sufficiently described in an existing recorded instrument, such as a deed, it may thereafter be described by reference to that recorded instrument. For example, if there is a recorded deed conveying property described by metes and bounds from Person A to Person B, a subsequent deed—say, conveying the same property from Person B to Person C—can simply reference the prior recorded deed, rather than restating the entire metes and bounds description. This type of legal description was favored in bygone eras when documents had to be handwritten, typeset, or typewritten, but now that we have entered the digital millennia, it is becoming (at least seemingly) more common to “copy and paste” the full text of the legal description itself.
All property owned in a named state or county. In Texas and many other jurisdictions, property is considered sufficiently described if it is described as all property owned by a named person within a named state or county. Much like referencing a prior recorded instrument, this presumes the existence of one or more prior instruments of conveyance which sufficiently describes the property; the biggest difference is that no information is given as to where to find the documents. As a practical matter, this type of legal description is used only as a last resort when there is insufficient time to draw up a better legal description, such as when a father conveys the family farm to his eldest son from his deathbed, and he likely will not live long enough for a surveyor to go out and draw up a metes and bounds description of the farm.
There are many more ways to describe real property, but these are the most common—at least west of the Mississippi River. Perhaps these are more common than others because they are less likely to contain errors or otherwise be declared invalid. In any case, the property description is an essential part of any conveyance of an interest in real property, and it is sometimes even more important to the interest holder than the type of interest itself. After all, you know what they say: location, location, location!
Byron L. Brown is an attorney with the Randle Law Office in Houston, Texas, where his practice areas include municipal economic development, municipal franchises and commercial lease litigation. He graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a B.A. in Criminal Justice, and earned his J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center.