Selling a large parcel of land can require some important groundwork beforehand in order to obtain the highest dollar amount possible. Often, the first thing a person needs to do is determine the exact amount of acreage that they own. That may sound silly, but it’s not uncommon for properties haven’t that changed hands in a while or haven’t warranted the marking of property boundaries to have less than stellar descriptions of what is there. First, look at the legal description of the property, which will be shown on the deed. The legal description is what describes the boundaries and states the amount of land contained within. An older metes and bounds legal description may go as follows:
Starting at a large black oak tree, then along the old Jones property to a rock on the side of a hill, then along the edge of Ed Crowley’s tobacco patch, then across the creek to a 16” stump near Joe Harrison’s corn crib, and then back to the beginning, containing 50 acres more or less.
Now, knowing that this description was written decades ago, what are the chances of you setting off into the woods and finding that rock on the hillside or the stump that used to be near a corn crib that may or may not still be there? This is where a surveyor comes in. A surveyor will take your deed and deeds of the surrounding properties and use them like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to determine just where the property lines are supposed to be. If one or more neighboring parcels have been surveyed, the survey will work from those established points and fill in the blanks on the points still needing to be staked. If the surveyor finds that neighboring deeds contradict one another or are just too vague to figure out, then the neighboring property owners may need to sign a boundary line agreement to establish the line once and for all. The sample legal description that I provided above was one I made up to illustrate a point, but it’s by no means ridiculous. Several years ago, I asked a surveyor we were working with on a particularly messy survey what was the worst legal description he’d ever seen. He laughed and immediately recalled a deed that had “the time it takes to smoke a cigarette on horseback” as a unit of distance for one of the property lines. Stories like this are humorous, but they help to emphasize what needs to be the starting point for selling your land: Make sure you know exactly what you own. Land is often sold “by the acre” meaning that the price per acre is agreed upon and then multiplied by the acreage amount to establish the purchase price. By not knowing exactly what you have, you run a very real risk of leaving money on the table or being accused of misleading the buyer if the acreage were to come up short when they later have it surveyed.
Another benefit is that once the boundary survey is complete, you will be able to determine whether the property could potentially be divided and offered in smaller tracts. As a seller, the primary motivation for dividing the property typically will be to drive the per acre average higher. Smaller tracts are more affordable to more people, thus expanding your pool of potential buyers and ideally driving the price up. If you decide to divide your property into tracts, you will likely be required by your local planning entity to make a record plat. The record plat is a drawing of the property illustrating the boundary lines, division lines, easements (such as water or electric lines), location of structures, setbacks, road access, neighboring property owners, and a good deal of other information that cannot properly be described with a metes and bounds description. Dividing the property will be subject to the rules and regulation of your local planning entity and the final plat will generally require approval prior to being recorded. In addition to planning guidance, the local health department may have to approve each tract’s suitability for a septic system, the state or county road department will need to tentatively approve entrances, and local utility companies will review and sign the plat verifying that the property is serviceable in its proposed configuration. You as the owner will also sign the plat and your signature will have to be notarized. After all of this is completed and reviewed, planning will grant final approval and the plat is ready to be recorded by the County Clerk. From that point on, the property won’t be described by metes and bounds. The deed will instead have “Lot 4 of Sunny Day Subdivision, Plat Cabinet 4, Sheet 35, as recorded in the office of the Reader County Clerk.” I’ve seen this cause concern with a buyer, since the deed doesn’t specifically state the acreage amount of the parcel. There is nothing to worry about, however, since the deed’s legal description now references the recorded plat, which contains much more detailed information about the property than the deed is capable of.
I’ve encountered more sellers than I can count who were hesitant to get a survey, put off by the cost and possibly feeling that it wasn’t necessary. However, the money spent establishing a clear, concise, and accurate legal description will not only save you headaches later but can pay for itself several times over by allowing you to offer a large parcel in smaller tracts which will average a higher overall per acre price.