Every parcel of land sold, leased or mortgaged must be properly identified or described. These descriptions are often referred to as legal descriptions. A good description is said to be one which describes no other piece of property but the one involved in the transaction.
The three most common methods of describing property are: by recorded map; by U. S. Government section and township; and by metes and bounds.
In California, the Subdivision Map Act (Government Code Sections 66410 et seq.) requires the mapping of all new subdivisions. The map shows the relationship of the subdivision to other lands and each parcel in the subdivision is delineated and identified. When accepted by county or city authority, the map is filed in the county recorder's office. Documentation can then describe any lot in the subdivision by indicating the lot number, the block, and the map. The description also includes the name of the city, county and state.
For example: "Lot 14, Block B, Parkview Addition (as recorded July 17,1956, Book 2, Page 49 of maps), City of Sacramento, County of Sacramento, State of California."
Description by Township and Section
In the township and section system, we begin with base lines, which are horizontal, and meridians, which are vertical.
This system establishes a grid of vertical lines ("ranges") and horizontal lines ("township" lines). The lines are six miles apart. A square created by intersections is therefore six miles on each side and contains 36 square miles. Each of these squares is called a township. (In order to correct for the spherical shape of the Earth, additional guide meridians are run every 24 miles east and west of the meridian and standard parallels are run every 24 miles north al'ld south of the base line. These are known as correction lines.)
In land descriptions, we move "townships" (north or south) from a principal base line and "ranges" (east or west) from a principal meridian, California has three sets of base lines and meridians: the Humboldt Base Line and Meridian in the northwestern part of the State; the Mt. Diablo Base Line and Meridian in the central part of the State; and the San Bernardino Base Line and Meridian in the southern part of the State.
The description "township 4 north, range 3 east, Humboldt Base Line and Meridian" directs us to the township which is 4 townships to the north from the Humboldt Base Line and 3 townships to the east from the Humboldt Meridian.
The following may aid understanding land descriptions:
• a township is a square, six miles on each side;
• a township contains 36 sections;
• each of the 36 sections in a township is a square, one mile on each side;
• a mile is 5,280 feet;
• a square mile is 27,878,400 square feet (5,280 x 5,280);
• an acre is 43,560 square feet;
• each section in a township is 640 acres (27,878,400 divided by 43,560);
• a half-section is 320 acres;
• a quarter-section is 160 acres; and
• a quarter of a quarter-section (the smallest squares in the township plat) is 40 acres
Metes and Bounds Description
A "metes and bounds" description may be necessary when the property referred to is not covered by a duly recorded map and is shaped so as to make it impractical to describe by section and township. Some metes and bounds descriptions are lengthy and difficult for anyone but a civil engineer or surveyor to understand. A complex metes and bounds description is a burden to county recorders and assessors.
A metes and bounds description starts at a fixed point of beginning and follows, in detail, the boundaries of the land described in courses and distances from one point to another until returning to the point of beginning. If a mistake is made at the point of beginning, the description is worthless.
Metes are measures of length: feet, yards, etc. Bounds are measures of boundaries, both natural and manmade: e.g., rivers and roads. Landmarks (trees, boulders, creeks, fences, roads and iron pipes, etc.), referred to as monuments, are often used in such descriptions.
Older descriptions of this type used markers that have disappeared, been moved or otherwise been altered, making the descriptions indefinite. Thus, since markers are subject to destruction and disappearance they should be used only where necessary and every identifying feature should be designated.
Other Description Methods
In the original government survey system, lakes, streams and other features were sometimes encountered which created fractional pieces of land less than a quarter section in.size. These fractional segments were identified by number. The specific lot number then became the legal description for that land parcel and these parcels were called government lots.
Today, acreage. lost due to township correction lines and unascertainable errors is placed in the quarter sections bordering the western and northern boundaries of a township. These geographical divisions which would otherwise qualify as quarter-quarter sections are also referred to as "government lots." A government lot does not necessarily contain a standard number of acres.
Record of Survey
After establishing points or lines, a land surveyor or civil engineer who has made a survey in conformity with land surveying practices may file a record of survey relating to boundaries or property lines with the county surveyor in the county in which the survey' was made. This record of survey map discloses: (1) material evidence of physical change which does not appear on any map previously recorded in the office of the county recorder; (2) a material discrepancy with information of record with the county; (3) any evidence that might result in alternate positions of lines or points; and (4) the establishment of lines not shown on a recorded map which are not ascertainable from an inspection of the map without trigonometric calculations.
The county surveyor, after examining a record of survey map filed with the surveyor's office, will then file it with the county recorder.
The county assessor may prepare and file in the assessor's office an accurate map of any land in the county and may number or letter the parcels in a manner approved by the board of supervisors. Section 327 of the Revenue and Taxation Code provides "that land shall not be described in any deed or conveyance by a reference to any such map unless such map has been filed for record in the office of the county recorder of the county in which such land is located."