Selling Rural Land? Learn to Read and Write Property Legal Descriptions!
We work with a lot of Real Estate Agents in evaluating, finding and helping sell forestland and one of my pet peeves has always been a lack of proper training my most professionals in writing proper legal descriptions.
A proper legal description allows anybody who reads it to quickly locate the property on a map as well as on the ground.
Our Forestry and Wildlife professionals learn to read and write legal description in college but for most of our clerical staff the first lesson they need to learn is how to read and write descriptions.
For our clerical staff we have adapted a tutorial from the Wisconsin DNR which works very well and I think that many Real Estate professionals may enjoy this also.
Tutorial on the Public Land Survey System – Reading and Writing Legal Descriptions
1) Wisconsin Townships
When the land was first surveyed in Wisconsin and most other states, it was divided into a grid as shown in Figure 1. Each grid cell represents approximately 36 square miles (the measurements were not always precise due to the instruments the surveyors were using, among other limitations). This grid system is known as the Public Land Survey System (PLSS). An example of a legal description using the PLSS is given below. N 1/2 SE 1/4 SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E. The descriptions are generally read from front to back. For example, the description above would be read "The north 1/2 of the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section 24, township 32 north, range 18 east." However, the easiest way to interpret descriptions is from back to front (or, right to left). To determine where the property is, we will break the description down into each of its elements, starting from the back and working our way to the front. We'll be starting with the most general labels and then move into the smallest, most specific labels.
Wisconsin Townships Figure 1: PLSS in Wisconsin
2) range numbers
Each cell in the grid is identified by a township and range number. The range number identifies how many cells the property is to the east or west of a starting point. Both eastern and western ranges are possible in Wisconsin, as shown in Figure 2. The range identified in our example legal description, R18E, is highlighted in Figure 3. N 1/2 SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E Ranges in WI Figure 2: Eastern and Western Ranges in Wisconsin Range 18 E Figure 3: Range 18 East
3) township numbers
Township 32 North Figure 4: Township 32 North The township number identifies how many cells the property is to north or south of a starting point. Only northern townships are possible in Wisconsin. The township identified in our example legal description, T32N, is highlighted in Figure 4. N 1/2 SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E
4) 36 sections twps
Each 36 square mile parcel identified by a township and range number is further divided into 36 sections, each section theoretically being 1 square mile, or 640 acres. The cells are numbered "boustrophedonically", or "as the cow plows", which means that the numbers wrap around in an "s" shape. Such a numbering system was easier for the surveyors to use when they were doing the original surveying. Our example refers to section 24, which is highlighted in red in Figure 5. N 1/2 SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E
5) section divided into 4 quarters
Many parcels of land are smaller than an entire section. They sometimes are the size of a quarter section. Each section is divided into 4 quarters, each being 1/4 square miles, or 160 acres. Each of the quarter sections is labeled with a quadrant direction. In our example, the description is referring to the southwest quarter section of section 24, which is highlighted in yellow in Figure 6. Again, be sure to read the description from back to front so you know to which quarter section the description is referring. N 1/2 SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E
6) Quarter-quarter sections
Quarter sections can be further divided into 4 more parts (called the quarter-quarter section), each being 1320 feet in length (1/4 of a mile), which results in 1,742,400 square feet, or 40 acres. Our description tells us that we are looking for the SE quarter-quarter section. Because we already know from our last step that we are in the SW quarter section, we know to now locate the SE quarter-quarter section in the SW quarter, as shown in blue in Figure 7. N 1/2, SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E Quarter Quarter Section Figure 7: SE Quarter-Quarter Section
7) half of a quarter-quarter section
Finally, we also have a reference to a half of a quarter-quarter section in our example. Halves can be used instead of, or in addition to, quarters to describe property location. In the case of our example legal description, the half quarter-quarter section is 20 acres (though if the legal description had read N 1/2, S24, T32N, R18E, the area of the half would have been 320 acres). Halves can be north, south, east or west. The north half of the southeast quarter-quarter section is highlighted in orange in Figure 8. N 1/2, SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E
8) the location of the land we've been locating in context
Figure 9 shows the location of the land we've been locating in context. You now know how to locate land using a PLSS description! N 1/2 SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E Final Location Map Figure 9: Location of N 1/2 SE 1/4, SW 1/4, S24, T32N, R18E
I hope this is helpful for you and all the real estate agents you know who deal with rural properties in Wisconsin or nearly any other State.
Call me if you would like help with this or any other matter relating to buying, selling or managing rural properties.
Images and some content, courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR