The Legal Description of Property

(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.

9 thoughts on “The Legal Description of Property

  1. Pingback: Seattle’s Rain City Real Estate Guide » Legal Description, Revisited

  2. I am in Ontario

    I have a question. What is the case of a homebuilder who claims they do not have a legal description until plans are registered, in time and have indicated some kind of builder’s internal numbering like 10001 to identify the property being purchased. The agreement has a coloued marketing plan which a purchaser would circle the same number on that plan.

    This seems like it could not be enforceable. It doesn’t even tell you exactly where the land is, for example other than in the Town of Smallville (just an example).

    So is this a void contract from the start…..or voidable by either party later? Apparently the plans are not expected to be registered for 6 or 8 months. The closing is a year away or longer.

    What are y our comments? I am a purchaser and wonder how this is possible that there is no lot number even if it is only a proposed number. I guess the homebuilder could change that as well.

    Thank you


  3. Jim, I ran into something similar when my brother was looking at new construction in eastern Washington. The proposed P&S agreement was a joke because not only did it not describe the land, it also didn’t describe the house to be built! And he was going to forfeit $5,000 of the earnest money once they drew up the plans! Fortunately he went elsewhere.

    I’m not even sure if your Ontario is in the US, but once the land is platted (or short platted) they should have a legal description. Personally I would suggest seeing an attorney prior to signing any such contract, and I have doubts it would be enforceable.

  4. This is a good post. Do you have any additional resources that might help us figure out what the different parts of a legal description are? I’m in Michigan and we get stuff that seems like it’s all in code (hence the legal description, right?). And example is something like this: T2N, R10E, SEC 35

  5. Eva — a complete legal description (and not an abbreviation such as the one you provide above) should be included in the deed by which you took title to the property. Alternatively, your title insurance policy almost certainly provides a complete legal description. Best of luck.

  6. Eva, you’re referring to your section, township and range which does describe where your property is located…but you should obtain a complete legal description of your property. In Michigan, do you have abstracts or full title companies?

  7. how important is the legal description on a mortgage contract. with wrong legal description is the contract a legal binding contract, and the mortgage go and change it without my signature. Ihave 2 acres one of the acres has a house and it’s own legal description and the other acre is raw land with it’s own legal description. the mortgage co. has all the info of the house on the empty lot different legal from where the house is at. I am in Texas

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