(This post is authored by Craig Blackmon, an attorney in Seattle whose practice focuses on residential real estate — see his web page or his blog for more information. Please note that this post is not legal advice. You should consult an attorney for specific legal counsel.)
The legal description — it’s just an address, right? Unfortunately, it’s significantly more complicated than that, and it’s important to know the difference if you’re trying to create a binding contract.
In England more than 300 years ago, Parliament passed the Statute for Prevention of Frauds and Perjuries, which required that certain contracts be written and signed before they would be enforced by the courts. Thus, one was prevented from committing fraud and perjury by falsely convincing a court that there was an enforceable oral contract. In other words, absent a written and signed agreement, there would be no enforceable contract, regardless of whether the parties actually created an oral contract. Today, attorneys and other legal scholars refer to the legal principle first enunciated by that English law as the “statute of frauds.”
Our legal system in this country is largely based on the system in England. Thus, all states have adopted in one form or another laws that reflect the statute of frauds. Here in Washington, certain statutes relate specifically to the conveyance of real property. Per RCW 64.04.010 and RCW 64.04.020, every conveyance of real property must be in writing, and it must be signed and acknowledged by the party to be bound (i.e. the party selling or otherwise conveying the property).
The courts have also adopted the statute of frauds and repeatedly found (over many, many years) that a contract for the conveyance of land must contain a description of the land sufficiently definite to locate it without relying on other evidence. See Tenco, Inc. v. Manning, 59 Wn.2d 479, 485(1962); Green v. Escene, 108 Wn.App. 1045 (2001) (not reported). Indeed, in a case decided nearly 60 years ago, the State Supreme Court specifically rejected the contention that a property’s address was a description sufficiently definite to satisfy the statute of frauds. Martin v. Seigel, 35 Wn.2d 223, 229 (1949). Fifty years later, in 1999, the Court reaffirmed this rule, despite its unusual strictness. Key Design, Inc. v. Moser, 138 Wash.2d 875, 882-83 (1999).
Therefore, when drafting a purchase and sale agreement, it is imperative to include the legal description and not just the property’s address — which, of course, begs the question: what is a legal description? In most instances, the legal description is based on the lot, block and subdivision of the property. Here is a typical legal description for a home in Seattle: “Lot 15, Block 21, Gilman Park Addition, according to the plat thereof recorded in Volume 3 of Plats, Page 40, Records of King County, Washington.” Where the home was not built as part of a subdivision, the legal description may reference a government survey or use “metes and bounds,” a method of describing the property with reference to landmarks, angles, and distances. To obtain a legal description, you can turn to the preliminary title commitment or a previous deed of the property (which is usually available online at the King County Recorder’s Office.
And if you don’t include a legal description? The purchase and sale agreement is not a binding contract, and either the buyer or the seller can walk away without any consequences. The MLS form purchase and sale agreement widely used in Seattle includes language indicating that the legal description can be included after creation of the contract by the buyer’s agent, the seller’s agent, or the escrow agent. If your purchase and sale agreement includes such language, then the legal description can be added at a later date to create a binding contract. However, until the legal description is included, there is no contract, and either party can walk away. Therefore, it behooves any serious buyer or seller to include the legal description from the contract’s inception.