Property Law Basics: Deeds

Most of a real estate lawyer’s work focuses on a single piece of paper: the deed. The deed is a legal document which contains a description of the property boundaries (the survey), and the current ownership rights. Deeds are highly formalized and contain some ancient language. One of my favorites is “witnesseth” which is a fancy way for saying “pay attention” and a word I might have to bring back to settle my kids’ fights over their Minecraft houses. Don’t let the formal tone of a deed scare you. Here is a quick cheat sheet that will help you make sense of your property deed.

All property deeds must have a “metes and bounds” property description which is usually in single space type on the first page of the deed. This is the weird language that sounds like a pirate talking about a map to her buried treasure—-”go 72 feet to a sunken pine oak, then go Northwest 800 feet to an old cherry tree.” Modern survey language usually describes property lines by using direction of a compass (North/East) and degrees.

Every deed must contain an accurate survey of the property. If you are giving the whole property to another person, a real estate lawyer can copy the former survey language into a new deed. If you are giving a piece of property to a child or friend, then you will need to pay for a survey of the new property lines prior to making the new deed. If there is confusion about where property lines are located, please pay for a new survey before selling a house or building a new garage.

I remain your friendly, neighborhood property lawyer,

Abigail Benjamin

Abigail Benjamin

Abigail is a 40 year old artist from West Virginia. She writes at