Government Survey System

What are legal land descriptions?

In legal documents, such as a lien, deed, trust deed, mortgage, and sales contract, courts require an exact description of where a piece of land is located.  This is not merely the address of the property but is a legal description.  There is more than one type of legal description you must know for your exam.  The government survey system legal land description method is the subject of this article.

What is the government survey system land description?

The government survey system is known by a few different names.  It is also known as the rectangular survey system and geodetic Government Survey Systemsurvey system.  Congress created it in 1785 as a more straightforward, faster and more accurate way to identify land.  You can think of this system as a gigantic checkerboard, as it has a bunch of intersecting lines that form squares into a grid.

How does the rectangular survey system work?

As mentioned above, basically you can think of the US as a huge checkerboard, with vertical and horizontal lines splitting it up.  You need to know what these lines are called and how they intersect for your real estate license exam.

The first set of lines are called the principal meridians and run north and south.  The second set of lines are called baselines and run east and west.  In the entire nation, there are only 36 principal meridians.  Each one is distinguished by a different name and number and has an intersecting baseline.  The principal meridians are not located in equal distances from one another.  Each piece of land is measured only from one meridian, and it may not be the one closest in proximity to the piece of land.

In addition to the principal meridians and baselines, the land is further divided by range lines, which run north and south.  Range lines are equally located six miles apart, and the columns of land they create are known as rangesTownship lines run east and west and are also found six miles apart.  The strips of land they form are known as township tiers.

The squares created by range and township lines are known as townships and are identified by their location from the baseline and principal meridian lines.

Are townships divided further?

Yes, but first you need to know the dimensions and measurements of a township.  Since the lines that create them are six miles apart, they are 24 miles around and include an area of 36 square miles, which is 23,040 acres.

Of course, this still makes up a lot of land, so townships are further divided into sections.  There are 36 sections in a township, and each section contains one square mile, which is 640 acres.  The sections are number 1 through 36 starting in the NE corner of the section continuing west along the top row.  The second row down continues being numbered west to east or left to right.  The numbering continues in this manner like a snake, until ending in the far southeast corner with section 36.

Section 16 is located directly in the center of the section and historically was always designated as the school section.  It made sense since it was centrally located.

We’re not done yet.  Sections can be further divided into halves and quarters.  You may have math questions on your real estate licensing exam related to this concept.

Are there any other terms related to the government survey system that I need to know for my exam?

Of course.  Since the earth is not flat like a checkerboard, there needed to be some adjustments made along the way to make sure everything worked out.  These are known as correction lines and guide meridians.  Every fourth township line is called a correction line, and every fourth range line is called a guide meridian.  Guide meridians run true north, and the intersecting correction line is shorter than a township line.

Since nothing is perfect, some sections of land ended up being larger or smaller than they should.  These sections are referred to as fractional sections.  Areas smaller than full-size sections are known as government lots and are numbered and placed in fractional sections.  Just because they are referred to as government lots does not mean the government owns the land they contain.

Are there any other forms of legal description?

Yes, there are.  They are known as lot and block and metes-and-bounds.  You may have questions about them on your exam as well, so check them out to make sure you understand them.

What else can help me prepare to pass my real estate licensing exam on my first attempt?

Other tips to help you pass your real estate licensing exam on your first attempt:

Real Estate Test Taking Tips

How to Pass the Real Estate Exam

Real Estate Exam Math Made Easy

Also, check out our question of the day videos on our YouTube channel:

PassMasters Real Estate Exam Prep YouTube Channel