What is a Legal Description and Why is it Important in South Carolina?

As a real estate attorney located in Summerville, South Carolina, I am often asked about real estate legal descriptions and their importance. In this article, I will define a legal description, where the legal description can be located, the most common types of writing legal descriptions and how legal descriptions differ from other forms of description in South Carolina.

What is a Legal Description in South Carolina?

Sales contracts, deeds, mortgages, and deeds of trust require a legal description of the property that is legally sufficient to be binding, meaning that the description would allow a competent surveyor to delineate the exact boundaries of the property. The legal description of a property does not include the buildings on it — only the boundaries of the property.
The legal description is also an important determinant in setting the property’s price. Although the address is necessary to locate the property, it is not enough to identify the property. Addresses are often renamed over time and even physical boundaries can change course, such as that of a creek. Because any property is necessarily limited in area, any description of that property must necessarily form an enclosed area.
Legal descriptions are generally prepared by a licensed surveyor, who is trained and authorized to locate and determine the legal description of any property. Only a licensed surveyor should prepare property descriptions since inaccuracies can cause title issues later.
The surveyor prepares two documents: a survey that gives the property’s description and a survey sketch that shows the location and dimensions of the parcel. If the location, size, and shape of buildings on the lot are also given, then it is referred to as a spot survey.

Where Can I Locate the Legal Description of Real Estate in South Carolina?

There are a few types of legal descriptions but these distinctions are often irrelevant to the deed preparation process. Knowing the different types of legal descriptions is not as important as knowing where to find the legal description to the specific property being conveyed.

The best place to find a legal description is usually the most recent deed to the property, which is the deed that conveyed the property to the current owner. The legal description is usually contained in the body of the deed. Legal descriptions are usually preceded by words of introduction, such as “… described as follows.” This language indicates that the legal description is about to begin. The legal description is often double-indented or set in boldface type to set it apart from the rest of the deed.

What Are the Most Common Methods of Writing a Legal Description in South Carolina?

Metes-and-Bounds System. This system limits or boundaries of a tract of land as identified by natural landmarks, such as rivers, or by man-made structures, such as roads, or by stakes or other markers. A principal legal type of land description in the United States, metes-and-bounds descriptions are commonly used wherever survey areas are irregular in size and shape. The land boundaries are run out by courses and distances, and monuments, natural or artificial, are fixed at the corners, or angles. A course is the direction of a line, usually with respect to a meridian but sometimes with respect to the magnetic north. Distance is the length of a course measured in some well-known unit, such as feet or chains.

• Lot-and-Block System.  The lot-and-block system, also known as the recorded plat system, refers to specific parcels of land identified by a lot number or letter and the block, or subdivision plat, in which the lot is located. The block itself is located by using either the metes and bounds system or the rectangular survey system. To identify a particular parcel of land, the lot-and-block system specifies the lot and block number, the name or number of the subdivision plat, and the name of the county and state.

• U.S. Public Land Survey System /Rectangular Survey. These are part of a system of rectangles that have been established to locate and identify parcel boundaries. To interpret a rectangular survey description, it is much easier if it is read backward or from the largest unit to the smallest unit.

Thankfully, you do not have to write your own legal description. Licensed surveyors are usually responsible for this. The legal description for your property is written on the deed to your property. If you need or want to interpret another legal description, you need to first locate your town plat, which you can find at your county recorder’s office.

How Do Legal Descriptions Compare with Other Forms of Description in South Carolina?

A legal description is one that is legally sufficient to transfer describe the property. Using the most recent deed to the property is usually the best way to ensure that the current owner’s interest passes to the new owner. However, there are  other types of descriptions that are often insufficient to qualify as an adequate legal description:

  • The description shown in the property tax records. Property tax records are not the same as land records. Depending on the county and state, the property tax records may use a brief description that is inadequate to legally describe the property. And because the tax records are not legal records, the summary description show in the tax records may actually describe a different property than the prior deed.
  • Street address. A street address is not a legal description. Street addresses often change, and they were never intended to provide a reliable description for purposes of deed preparation. A street address is not sufficient to serve as an adequate legal description of the real estate.

In most cases, there is no substitute for simply locating the most recent deed to the property and using the legal description found on that deed.

Knowing the legal description of your property, among other things, is an important determinant in setting the property’s price as it is a written record of a piece of land containing information that clearly identifies it. If you would like to further discuss real estate legal descriptions or want clarification, please contact the Watts Law Firm.