Selling Rural Land? Learn to Read & Write Property Legal Descriptions!

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Selling Rural Land? Learn to Read and Write Property Legal Descriptions!   plss poster

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

wisconsin townships

 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 numbersrange 18

ranges 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 twpssections and 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

section quadrants

 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 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

quarter quarter section half

 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

section map

 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


Re-Blogged 1 time:

Re-Blogged By Re-Blogged At
  1. Robert Vegas Bob Swetz 01/21/2017 06:15 PM
Real Estate Best Practices
Land Specialists
All Land
Farms, Ranches, Acreages and Land
Forest Land tips and listings
legal descriptions
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Endre Barath, Jr.
Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices - Beverly Hills, CA
Realtor - Los Angeles Home Sales 310.486.1002

Bob for someone who does a lot of land, I appreciated this post a great deal. Here in the greater Los Angeles area we have Assessors Parcel Numbers and it is truly wonderful in identifying a specific property. Endre

Jan 18, 2017 06:10 PM #1
Sondra Meyer:
Star View Real Estate - Colorado Springs, CO
See It. Experience It. Live It.

I wish that I would have had this post when I was struggling to figure out how to read legal descriptions. I'll plan on re-blogging this within next week or two.


Jan 18, 2017 08:32 PM #2
Sally Crane
WMS - Unity, WI
Woodland appraisal support.

Great post Bob, such important information that can be very valuable and useful when dealing with property.

Jan 18, 2017 09:35 PM #3
Laura Cerrano
Feng Shui Manhattan Long Island - Locust Valley, NY
Certified Feng Shui Expert, Speaker & Researcher

I want to what I'm more about this method and like grow with it kind of, so to speak. If that makes sense.

Jan 18, 2017 11:53 PM #4
Georgie Hunter R(S) 58089
Hawai'i Life Real Estate Brokers - Haiku, HI
Maui Real Estate sales and lifestyle info

Well that is completely different from the way we do surveying here in Hawaii. The grid system does not work on mountainous island terrain

Jan 19, 2017 12:40 PM #5
Robert Vegas Bob Swetz
Realty ONE Group - Las Vegas, NV
Las Vegas Henderson Homes for Sale

Hello Bob 

Some great information and I remember viewing these types of graphs in RE school many years ago.

Jan 21, 2017 06:07 PM #6
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
your real estate writer

Back when I was an agent I did a lot of this kind of reading - and writing. Finding those elusive markers on the ground was another matter. Often they'd been bulldozed away years earlier.

Some of our descriptions were tedious. Instead of a straight forward description of the parcel, they started with a section, then went on to less this, less that, less another thing - until they got down to 5 or 10 acres.

The worst were the ones we had to get corrected because some homeowner divided their land and didn't get expert help in writing the description. One time we had to get a description re-written and take it to an elderly lady for a signature. Every time we went there she wanted us to sit down and listen while she read to us from the Bible. Then she wanted to discuss what she'd read.

Memories of real estate...

Jan 21, 2017 09:02 PM #7
Nicholas Crane
Crane Forest and Property Management - Cadott, WI
Managing & Appraising Forest Land

Thanks for sharing this valuable information - when you use it often it becomes easy - but for those who don't use it very often a great reminder.

Jan 22, 2017 08:36 PM #8
John Mosier
Realty ONE Group Mountain Desert - Prescott, AZ
Prescott's Patriot Agent 928 533-8142

Great post, Bob Crane -- I will reblog if I can find some graphics with Arizona instead of Wisconsin. I did bookmark your post.

Jul 31, 2017 10:22 AM #9
Bob Crane
Woodland Management Service / Woodland Real Estate, Keller Williams fox cities - Stevens Point, WI
Forestland Experts! 715-204-9671

PLSS in Arizona, these may work John Mosier .

I am glad to hear that you found value in this John, with the amount of land that you sell this should be helpful for your clients.

Jul 31, 2017 11:06 AM #10
Debe Maxwell, CRS | The Maxwell House Group | RE/MAX Executive | (704) 491-3310 - Charlotte, NC
Charlotte Homes for Sale - Charlotte Neighborhoods

Wonderful explanation, Bob! This is definitely something that is helpful to many who have no clue how to read legal descriptions!

Aug 01, 2017 08:58 PM #11
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