Years ago when I got into the title search business, way before I did cell tower searches and commercial title searches, I worked for a friend who showed me the ropes – but only a certain length.

The only type of searches she did, and therefore all she could teach me, was residential searches. And of those only those types of searches that were platted. If it was commercial, send it back. If it has metes and bounds, send it back.

When I spread my wings and started my own title search business, I became concerned that I was missing out on opportunities by not tackling the metes and bounds searches. And if you are going to do commercial and cell tower searches, you absolutely MUST understand metes and bounds.

So I studied up on it, practiced reading them, mapping and basically getting my mind around the subject as much as I could. Good thing I did too. As more and more residential work went in-house and overseas, the more it became apparent that doing commercial work and cell tower searches was a must, not an option.

First off, let’s look at the name of this legal description system. Mete means measure and bound means boundary. Yes, there are other definitions, but these are the definitions we are concerned with. Therefore Metes and Bounds literally means Measurements and Boundaries.

A simple example would be a property line – any property line. It starts at a marker of some sort, say a fencepost, goes a certain distance in a certain direction and ends at a certain marker. The distance and direction is the mete that makes up that bound. See?

Put a bunch of these together in a legal description and you have plural, metes and bounds. Without any further explanation, at its core, it really is that simple.

But the two words in the above description that make it tricky (or seem so) is distance and direction. So let’s break that down.

Distance these days is measured in feet, in the US anyway. But going back in time to old deeds you will find in some deeds legal descriptions using regional, and now archaic, units of measurement. In Texas and California for instance you will run into the word ‘Vara’. This one originated in Spain, Portugal, and South America. The real fun thing about this one, is that it varies by region anywhere from 32 – 43 inches. But luckily the Mexican Vara is 32.09 inches. So in Texas and California it equates to 33.5 and 33 inches respectively.

Up north around the colonies and then spreading into the Midwest you run into measurements by the name of rod or perch or pole. This was a surveyor’s tool and a unit of length that is about 16.5 feet. That is about ¼ a surveyor’s chain or 1/320 of a “statue mile”. All of those come from Jolly Old England and the Weights and Measurements Act of 1593 under Queen Elizabeth’s watch. Although established as common use by Henry the VIII, it is the reason our miles today are 5,280 feet.

But if you ever run into these measurements in your legal descriptions, thankfully Google has online conversion tools for these. Or you can find various conversion tools on the Internet in order to make sense of the whole thing.

But since you most likely will be reading it in feet, let‘s go with that.

Direction is a bit more complex but not necessarily difficult if you are familiar with the concept of compass directions, i.e. North, South, East, West. And you have to be familiar with compass degrees like 90 degrees and 45 degrees

As compass readings/degrees usually are the least understood of the two, let’s tackle that one first. Take a look at this image.

Metes and Bounds Quadrant Compass

Quadrant Compass

There are basically two types of compass readings. Quadrant meaning 4 different areas and Azimuth meaning directions globally. The second one is much more complex than what I described it as, but we don’t need to go into that as luckily the first one, quadrant notation, is the one we use for reading legal descriptions.

Take a look at this. These are the quadrants. There are 4 and they are split up like 4 pieces of pie.


If you put the degrees and North, South, East, and West on it, you have this, the Quadrant Compass.

Metes and bounds Quad Compass

Quad Compass

Since the top right quadrant is between North and East it is the North East or NE Quadrant. The rest of the quadrants follow suit. Now measures are from the viewpoint of the observer as if you were standing in the middle of the cross, where all quadrants touch. So if you were standing on the cross and someone said to look 60 degrees NE, you would look right and up, but mostly right. And if they said look 30 degrees SW you would look down and left, but mostly down. If someone were to say to look 45 degrees NE you would look in the direction that is between 30 degrees and 90 degrees. See?

Now, 99% of the time you will never see the directions 90 degrees or 0 degrees used. You will rather see “Due North” or simply “North” or “Due East” or “East” etc. But if read 89 degrees NE, that is almost exactly due east and slightly north of the right hand line. 89 degrees SE would be slightly south of the right hand line.

So, we have 0 to 90 degrees in each quadrant where 0 starts either on North or South and ends on the 90’s at either West or East. But in modern surveying, technology has allowed the surveyors to break down the degrees into smaller units called minutes and those broken down even further to seconds.

What does direction have to do with time? Nothing. In fact, we are using different definitions of the words “minute” and “second”. So before we totally confuse things any further let’s look at those definitions.

Minute – the sixtieth 1/60 part of a degree in angular measurement.

Second – the sixtieth 1/60 part of a minute in angular measurement.

The word itself comes loosely from the Latin word “diminished”. No need to go any further with that. This isn’t etymology class after all. Simply know that a minute is 1/60th of a degree and a second is 1/60th of minute.

Now, unless you are a surveyor, you are never going to use those. But you need to know what they mean so that you don’t get bogged down in the legal description. And you need to know how they are represented in notation in a legal description.

A degree is represented by the notation of a little circle above and to the right of the number. This you already know. But the minute is represented by a single quotation mark and the second by the double quotation mark. So that in a legal description it looks like this.

Metes and Bound Compass Degree Numbers

Compass Degree Numbers

Now, in that picture it looks like double quotation marks are actually triple. They aren’t. That ‘third’ mark is a part of the capital letter “W” for West. See, in legal descriptions (and quadrant compass notations in general) directions are written out starting with either ‘North’ or South’, then the degrees, minutes, and seconds and then either ‘West’ or ‘East’. Like, North 56 degrees, 4 minutes, 1 second West. If it is abbreviated it looks like this.

Cell Tower Search Legal Direction and Degrees

Compass Direction and Degrees

And it would look like this.

Metes and Bound Compass Direction Reading

Compass Direction Reading

As you can see the blue line is at (roughly) 54 degrees on the NW quadrant. Starting with the word “North” gives us our vertical direction, followed by the degree down (because North is always 0) and then “West”, lets us know our horizontal orientation.

That is how we get our direction. This sets the stage for Part 2 of How To Read Metes And Bounds