Well, a week has passed since my last entry, so I guess it’s time to write again. First off, here’s this week’s Plot of the Week:
This plot describes a tract 37.7 acres in area with a closure of less than 0.004 feet! Now that is just amazing. I love the graceful curve that forms the northeast side of the tract. It must be a river or creek. Of course, the “curve” is all made up of straight lines, but there are enough of them to give a very impressive curve effect.
Now, on to the main subject of this entry. This entry is for the beginners out there who have found the site and know that they need to use it somehow, but don’t really know what they’re doing. Maybe they’re a landowner looking at the deed to their own property, or somebody just getting started in the real estate business. Well, this little primer should be able to get you on your way to plotting tracts in just a few minutes.
In general, there are four ways of legally describing a piece of land. The first (and least precise) way is to list the tracts that surround it. While it may have been sufficient at one point in the past to say that Farmer Eli’s farm is east of Farmer Abe’s, south of Farmer Bob’s, north of Farmer Coy’s, and west of Farmer Doc’s, such descriptions don’t hold much water in today’s world. The second method (more about which later) is a metes and bounds description. The third method is to refer to a plat or map which contains a drawing of the tract, which includes measurements, angles and possibly other information as well. This is the usual method for describing tracts within cities and subdivisions; a plat is filed with the County Clerk or other government registrar, and subsequent references to the tracts therein are referred to by numbered spaces on the plat, usually Blocks and Lots. The fourth and final way is by referring to the Public Lands Survey System method by which most of the United States was surveyed. I may talk about that method another day, but for now suffice it to say that Tract Plotter does NOT currently recognize such tracts.
Tract Plotter is a way of bridging the gap between the 2nd and 3rd methods of tract description; that is, it is a way to create a visual plat from a metes and bounds legal description. However, a plat is only as good as the information fed into it. If your description has many lines like “in a northerly direction to an Elm tree 14 inches in diameter,” then you might as well give up now. There is simply no way to create a decent plat from such imprecise measurements. “Northerly” is not a direction. If you come across such a description, however, all is not lost. You can still reconstruct a description for the tract on the basis of other, later descriptions. For example, if the tract was divided into two separate tracts which were later sold separately, hopefully there were decent descriptions for both of those descendant tracts, and you can piece the two together in order to figure out how the original tract was shaped. Sometimes you may have to follow the tract through two or three generations before you can get a reliable description; but when you have one, you can work your way backwards to get a description for the original tract.
Now, what makes for a good legal description? Every call needs to have a solid numerical distance and a bearing. The distance part is fairly easy to understand. A distance could be 20 feet, 90 yards, 33 varas, 92 links, or what have you. Each distance contains a number and a unit. There are many units that have been used to describe land in the US, and Tract Plotter understands most of them. (Let me know if there are any that I’ve missed! I’m particularly interested to know of varas other than Texas varas, which are 33 1/3 inches.) So distance is no problem as long as you know the units. Most modern tracts in the US are measured in feet, and feet are the default unit in Tract Plotter. So if your description uses feet, you don’t have to worry about including units in your input.
The only “gotcha” when it comes to units is compound units, e.g. feet and inches. Tract Plotter only uses decimal representations of single units, and as such, does not recognize compound units. For example, if you have a legal description that says “104 feet, 5 inches” then you will need to manually translate this distance into 104.416f.
Bearings, on the other hand, have been known to cause confusion. Cardinal directions, such as due North, are easy enough to understand. However, most tracts do not run in pure cardinal directions. A typical bearing might read “North 30 West”. All that this means is that the line runs 30 degrees westward of North. Here is what North 30 West looks like:
Note the blue dot. That is the starting point. The line travels N30W from that starting point. To show you why this is important, here is South 30 East:
“But that’s the same line!” you protest. Indeed it is. However, the starting point is different. In this example we have started at a point (the blue dot) and then travelled along a line headed 30 degrees East of South. So, here we have our first important finding: Every boundary line in a tract can be described in two different ways. You can start at one end and work your way in one direction, or you can start at the other end and work your way the other direction. The way to switch directions is pretty simple; simply swap the “N” or “S”, and the “W” or “E” in the bearing. Leave the bearing degrees, minutes, and seconds alone; and leave the distance alone. However, both the N/S and the E/W parts of the bearing must be swapped. Look at the example above and you will see why. A line that runs NW is the same as a line that runs SE, but different from a line that runs NE or SW.
Now, a couple more things to finish up the treatment of bearings. You may recall that there are 360 degrees in a circle. However, since we effectively divide up the circle into 4 quadrants with the N/S and E/W bearing calls, we really only have to deal with 90 degrees as the maximum number in the bearing. Tract Plotter accepts cardinal bearings such as “N” or “W”, so you don’t have to waste your time if a bearing says “North 90 degrees West”, which translates as due west. You can just enter “W” into Tract Plotter and save a little time, although “N90W” is valid as well. Tract Plotter will also handle nonsensical bearings such as”N120W” (which really should be written S60W), although, if you find such a bearing in a description, it is likely to be in error. I will probably fix this at one point and restrict the maximum bearing angle to 90 degrees, but for now I will leave it as is.
Finally, we get to the issue of degrees, minutes, and seconds. As stated above, there are 360 degrees in a circle, but we only really use up to 90 of them in a bearing. A degree is divided into 60 minutes, and each minute is divided into 60 seconds. The usual symbol to indicate degrees is a little circle like this: °. Minutes and seconds are usually denoted in the same way that they are in the context of time; i.e., a single quote ‘ for minutes, and a double-quote ” for seconds. However, these often are not terribly practical for data entry purposes (especially the degree symbol, which is not on most keyboards and requires a special key combination to enter into most computers). For this reason, Tract Plotter simply uses the standard period to delineate between degrees, minutes, and seconds. For example, the translation of the deed call North 48 degrees 32 minutes 19 seconds West or N 48° 32′ 19″ W would be N48.32.19W. If your deed lacks minutes and/or seconds, simply leave them out. If you have a leading zero for any of the units, e.g. N 08° 03′ 06″ W then you can omit the zeroes: N8.3.6W (although you may want to include them for your own sake; personally, I usually include all digits, including zeroes, so that all of my deed calls line up in the Tract Plotter entry box).
Well, that wraps up this week’s blog entry. Please comment if you have any questions or feel that I left out anything basic in this post. Next week I will get more into some of the finer points of metes and bounds descriptions.