When doing any Title Search, from a Cell Tower Search or Commercial Title Search down to the smallest Residential Title Search, there is going to be a legal description of the property. And in all title searches, legal description is king. Even in states like California where they track land conveyance by parcel number, legal description is still king.
When doing a title search, there are three types systems used for legal descriptions. Those would be Lot and Block Survey System (aka Plat System), Public Land Survey System (in the U.S.), and Metes & Bounds system.
As abstractors, we always hope for the Lot and Block Survey System or Plat System when opening up an order from a client for the first time as that is the easiest. But unfortunately that isn’t always the case, especially when doing rural residential title searches or Cell Tower Searches. Then, depending on the state, we find either the PLSS system or Metes & Bounds, or a combination of the two being used for the legal descriptions. And when doing Cell Tower Searches where the Site Acquisitions Manager has decided that the tower needs to be in a subdivision, you usually have to go back in time past the time when the land was subdivided and into the title history of the parent parcels from which the subdivision came from.
In this case it can get tricky and difficult without the right knowledge, mindset, and tools. I find that Google is exceptionally useful when trying to decipher legal descriptions using both the PLSS and Metes and Bounds combinations. But I will go into how I use Google in a later article. For now, let’s concentrate on the PLSS
When using the PLSS, we are dealing with Ranges, Townships, and Sections. Now, the system itself lists these in reverse order when looking at a legal description. For example it with say something like Section 33, Township 35 North, Range 6 West. Usually it is abbreviated as S33, T35N, R6W. If I told you that was of the 5th P.M.(Principal Meridian), some of you might even know that is in southern-central Missouri, in Dent County.
999.9 times out of 1000 you won’t need to know what the Principal Meridian is or what the ‘North’ behind township or the ‘West’ behind range means because the appraiser usually has this narrowed down for us all the way down to the section. But we need to go over a few things to get a basic understanding.
Starting out, you have a crosshair or cross with the horizontal line being the baseline and the vertical line being the prime meridian. These are established off of some other geographical measurements that we really don’t need to get into. Then off that crosshair you form a grid with each quarter containing 9 squares. Each of those square is 6 miles X 6 miles or 36 square miles. The T2S as you can see means that it is the Township 2 South which is the second township line below the baseline. The R3W means Range 3 West or third line from the west of the principal meridian.
Then inside each of those townships we have sections. How many? You guessed it. 36. Just like the township grid. The weird thing is, the sections are numbered in a serpentine fashion from the top right going down. So, you can see where we would get the Section 33 from in the grid.
Once we have established the range, township, and then section, we can then get down to business as to what part of that is our subject parcel.
And notice that again I listed the backwards from the way legal descriptions show them. The reason for that is there is a fundamental change we have to make in our minds from the way the legal is written and the way we have to see it in our minds, because you will find when doing title searches that the legal descriptions using PLSS will be written backwards from what our minds would like to interpret them simply because we are used to looking at things differently. When we think of and address we see that it is written this way as well. First the street number, then the street, then the town, then the state, with zip cope. But if you think about it, really, that too is backwards.
If you were to meet a person and you asked him where he was from and he said “260” in a thick accent, you most likely would go “huh?”, thinking maybe it was a language barrier thing. Right away if you don’t recognize the accent, you want to know what country in the world is he from. If you ask and he tells you “Boulevard Ziraoui”, most likely you would still be in a mystery. Asked again, he says “Casablanca”. There is your you ‘ahhh’ moment as you can then put together the rest of the puzzle regarding the country and know he is from Morocco.
You see, it makes much more sense if he said Morocco, then if you wanted more detail, and he was inclined to give it, he would then give the rest. That’s just how we think. So legal descriptions using the PLSS go against our natural way of seeing geographic locations in our minds. And when you break into the sections it just gets worse.
See, sections are divided into quarters. And then those quarters are divided into quarters. Then those can then sometimes be divided further into quarters. Then usually it gets into acres and/or metes and bounds.
For example. If you look at typical section image you can probably work out which parcel I would be talking about if I said the legal description was “the west 20 acres of the southwest quarter of the southeast quarter of Sec 33, Township 2 North, Range 3 West” etc. Or if I said the “east half of the northeast quarter of Section blah containing 80 acres more or less”. Sometimes we are lucky and it is a simple as that. But more often times than not, it then goes into a metes and bounds description.
That can get a little tedious and confusing, particularly with old metes and bounds descriptions. I run into these quite a lot when doing a Cell Tower Search. Metes and bounds, I will go into in a later post, but understand this. They are based off landmarks. And back in the old days surveyors used landmarks like “a railroad spike” and “a boise d’arc”, which by the way is a tree. What are the chances of the railroad spike or the tree being there 30 years later if the property was developed? Not to mention if you have to go back 50 or 100 years. Fun stuff!!!