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How to map property boundaries from a deed

DeedLast week, I mentioned that the shape of your property on the tax assessor's map could be wrong.  So how do you figure out where the real boundaries are?  The geekily inclined will enjoy pulling out their deed and mapping the property boundaries themselves.

Your deed will probably have a section a bit like the first image in this post which lists a series of directions and distances.  A rectangular property would only have four corners, but most properties in our neck of the woods are oddly shaped and contain ten or twenty points, which complicates matters.  I like to sum up all of the points in a spreadsheet like the one shown below to keep myself on track.

Boundary informationYou'll notice that the first six columns are copied directly from the deed, but where did the other two columns come from?  To calculate decimal degrees, divide the seconds by 360, the minutes by 60, and leave the degrees alone, then add all three numbers together for each point.  I like to use a spreadsheet rather than jotting down the numbers in a notebook since I can set up a formula to do all the math for me.

The last column in my spreadsheet shows how many centimeters I'll measure on my map for each distance, which requires me to choose a scale.  After playing around with my sheet of graph paper, I settled on 1 centimeter for 200 feet --- you might want to set 1 centimeter equal to 100 feet on a larger property or to 50 feet on a smaller property.  You can also measure in inches, but my rulers tend to divide inches up into eighths and centimeters into tenths, which makes it easier to deal with decimals on the centimeber side.  Again, I set up a formula in the spreadsheet and let it do all the math for me.

Compass for boundary mappingAs a side note, older deeds often list distances in poles and links.  A pole (also known as a perch or a rod) is equal to 16.5 feet and a link is equal to 0.66 feet.  Again, setting up your spreadsheet carefully makes it easy to convert from these older measurements to something you're more familiar with.

Now you're ready to map!  You'll need a sheet of paper (graph paper is better, for reasons I'll explain tomorrow), a ruler, and a protractor.  Since I lost my tenth grade protractor somewhere or other and didn't want to remember how to orient the protractor to deal with all the directions anyway, I just printed out the image to the left, cut out a circle of paper containing the protractor, and coated it with clear tape that extended past the edges of the paper.  I used my ruler to make the lines on the protractor extend onto the transparent tape, then cut out a hole in the center of the protractor to allow me to line the tool up properly.  Fifteen minutes later, I had the homemade protractor shown below.

Homemade protractorBefore you start, remember to label north and the scale on your paper.  Since the deed I was working with mentioned that the boundaries listed start at the northwest corner of the property, I set my first dot in a random location in the upper left side of the paper.  I set my protractor on top of the dot (making sure north was lined up correctly), and made a mark at what I estimate to be 63.3 degrees in the northeast quadrant.

Plotting property boundariesNext, line your ruler up so that zero is at the first dot, with the ruler making a straight line through the second dot.  Plot the first distance listed in your spreadsheet.  Now, go back and mark the distance and direction for the rest of the points in turn.  (I recommend plotting your boundaries in pencil and erasing your direction dots as you go along so you don't get confused.)

If you're really good, your final line will end up hitting your first dot, but don't be too concerned if it's a short distance off.  Especially if you're using a homemade protractor like mine, chances are you'll have to fudge a bit at the end to make your property close up.

Property maps

It turns out that this time around, the county got it right --- the map I drew matches up quite well with Google Maps' description of the property boundaries.  I guess I didn't need to make my map after all, but it sure was fun.  Stay tuned for tomorrow's post on estimating acreages using your newly drawn map.

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free solution for happy backyard hens.



Edited to add: Roland created an awesome spreadsheet that makes plotting your property boundaries and estimating the acreage inside extremely easy.  Just download his spreadsheet, replace the letters and numbers in blue with your own, and the spreadsheet does the calculating for you!



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Anna, if you already have the data in a spreadsheet, it is simple to plot the bounderies.

Convert the degrees, distance pairs to distances in x and y, choose a starting point and create the next point by adding the distances to the previous point. If the surveyor and the clerk were competent, the last point should end up at the starting point. :-)

Then plot the points as a scatter plot ('XY' plot in gnumeric).

I did it in Python, because I find that a better programming environment than a spreadsheet, but I'll send you an example for gnumeric as well by e-mail.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jul 23 14:38:29 2012
Roland --- I should have thought of simply letting the computer plot it from the spreadsheet! I got a little lost, though, at the beginning of your description when you said "convert the degrees/distance pairs to distances in x and y". Am I having to do trigonometry by hand here, or is that somehow in your python scrypt? Is there a way to do the whole thing in a spreadsheet?
Comment by anna Mon Jul 23 15:42:10 2012

You can do the conversions in a spreadsheet, but it is kind of complicated as you can see below because of the compass degree headings.

Basically, in a cartesian coordinate system, the positive x-axis goes to the right from the origin (east in compass degree headings), and the y-axis goes up (north in compass degree headings). A positive angle is measured counterclockwise from the x-axis. In Python, the code for converting looks as shown below. Deedpoint is a list of tuples, while 'd' is a tuple. The elements of a list or a tuple are indexed by a number starting with zero. So if 'q = deedpoints[0]', then 'q[0] = N' and 'q[5] = 1401.09'. The angle is calculated as degrees+minutes/60+seconds/3600. This is then converted to cartesian degrees by the nested if/then. The first quadrant N-E is from 0°-90°, the second quadrant N-W from 90°-180°, the third quadrant S-W from 180°-270° and the fourth quadrant S-E from 270°-360°. So for example:

  • N60E = 30 degrees [30 = 90 - 60]
  • N10W = 100 degrees [100 = 90 + 10]
  • S60W = 210 degrees [210 = 360 -(90+60)]
  • S80E = 350 degrees (or -10 degrees) [350 = 80 - 90]

Knowing this, it is probably easier to decipher the code below. After converting the compass degree headings to cartesian degrees, we convert them to radians and use basic trigonometry to convert the angle and distance into distances in x and y. This is then combined with the coordinates of the previous point ('verts[-1]') to calculate the new point. The code below is a slightly more readable version of what I sent you before. It works the same, though.

deedpoints = [
    ('N', 63, 18, 0, 'E', 1401.09), 
    ('N', 73, 53, 0, 'E', 130.43), 
    ('N', 88, 59, 50, 'E', 90.59), 
    ('S', 20, 25, 50, 'E', 259.96), 
    ('S', 15, 26, 50, 'E', 345.25), 
    ('S', 19, 43, 50, 'E', 96.51), 
    ('S', 22, 46, 40, 'E', 200.39), 
    ('S', 28, 12, 50, 'E', 110.44), 
    ('S', 34, 47, 40, 'E', 277.66), 
    ('S', 44, 43, 40, 'W', 106.84), 
    ('S', 63, 54, 20, 'W', 323.67), 
    ('S', 38, 19, 20, 'E', 281.68), 
    ('S', 22, 58, 10, 'W', 365.59), 
    ('S', 80, 5, 40, 'W', 438.65), 
    ('N', 51, 49, 40, 'W', 527.88), 
    ('S', 50, 23, 10, 'W', 98.67), 
    ('N', 49, 0, 20, 'W', 95.73), 
    ('N', 72, 42, 10, 'W', 429.41), 
    ('N', 14, 22, 20, 'W', 924.64), 
    ]

verts = [(0.0, 0.0)]
codes = [Path.MOVETO]

for d in deedpoints:
    angle = d[1]+d[2]/60.0+d[3]/3600.0
    direction = d[0] + d[4]
    if direction == 'NE':
        angle = 90.0 - angle
    elif direction == 'NW':
        angle = 90.0 + angle
    elif direction == 'SE':
        angle = angle - 90.0
    elif direction == 'SW':
        angle = 360 - (90 + angle)
    else:
        raise ValueError('Invalid direction')
    angle = math.radians(angle)
    dx = d[5]*math.cos(angle)
    dy = d[5]*math.sin(angle)
    prev = verts[-1]
    newpoint = (prev[0] + dx, prev[1]+ dy)
    verts.append(newpoint)
    codes.append(Path.LINETO)

I hope my explanation makes sense. :-) The code for making the plot isn't shown here, but I mailed it to you.

The easiest way to do this in a spreadsheet is probable to calculate the four possible conversions as shown in the bullet list above, each in a separate column, and then put the correct value in an adjacent column based on the compass headings; so for 'N' and 'E', pick column X, for N-W, pick column Y et cetera.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jul 23 17:10:50 2012

Roland --- I have to admit, since my experience with programming was limited to reading up to page 10 in the Atari Basic programming manual when I was in elementary school, the paper and pencil method is looking better and better. :-)

Now, if you made a web app where folks could just input their data and the website would spit out a map, that would be right up my alley.....

Comment by anna Mon Jul 23 20:23:10 2012

I used to work for our local DOT as a lawyer doing acquisition of ROW or Right of Way for road repairs (temporary) or road expansions (permanent). We were the state so we could use eminent domain. We had a policy that if the title was clear then we offered purchase price (that is the real cost of building roads is the cost of buying the land) then next bit of cost when it comes to road isn't the actual building but the repair and maintenance costs over the lifespan of the road. If the title wasn't clear then we used eminent domain as that would take care of any problems with the title. We had an over 90% rate of purchase on first offer and we were proud of that.

That said, I spent an enormous amount of time on boundaries. Most of my work was in the rural part of the state. Lawyers are not trained in orienteering and do NOT know to how make sure that the property "closes" in metes and bounds. There are more errors on your deed than you can imagine. This is what you pay "title insurance" for, some stupid lawyer who didn't know how to do property law properly but worked in the small town and did title work for all the local real estate agent. Back in the day (before the mid 1970s) all property transactions were handled by lawyers and there were, believe it or not, fewer errors in the older stuff. Most errors we found were early 80's to late 80's vintage. We'd do a 40 year search, unless it was railroad and then it was more than 40 years by a lot, handwritten in fact. Now the only lawyer looking at it is the title company and they are NOT well trained.

You have a right to the old property records at your county registrar. They have to let you do a search if you are thinking of buying a piece of property or own a piece of property. Go ask them for help. Expect to spend a couple of days reading the old records. It will take you atleast that long. Go back 40 years or to the transfer to the little old lady who has owned it more than 40 years and make sure that the property bounds close. Check for easements and other "rights" given out against your property.

Anna did an amazingly good job of explaining the basics here. Everyone should know what they own and what they are responsible for. Walk the boundaries, find the irons, plant a tree near the irons if you can or pile up a stone cairn, learn what you are responsible for. If you don't have irons pay a professional surveyor to install (very very rare but you should have them)

:D

Comment by c. Wed Jul 25 11:55:14 2012

It sounds like you know a lot about the issues, c! I'd definitely believe that there were fewer errors in the older documents --- I think that sometimes computers give us a false sense of security that can just pass errors forward without being examined. Interesting to hear you say that going back 40 years is all you need --- I wasn't sure how far to go with my property, so researched back 100 or so, I believe.

Around here, man-made boundary markers are much less common. The deeds I've dealt with usually list corners at rocks, trees, creeks, etc. But you can often find the boundary easier than you'd think due to lines of older trees, old fencelines, etc. I probably should do a post on finding your boundaries sometime too....

Comment by anna Wed Jul 25 13:32:57 2012

Google 40 year rule for deeds and your state. Every state is slightly different. Most adhere to the 40 year plus transfer of property before 40 years if the same owner still holds.

It's a way of cutting off claims from long long ago and keeping it moving. Similar to the statute of limitations for most wrongs to end up in civil actions in court. (Criminal is a different ball of wax, obviously)

Everyone should know this and it shouldn't be hidden, but I'm a big fan of transparent knowledge within a community. I wish they'd teach landlord/tenant law in high school so when you move out as an adult you know your rights and responsibilities.

Comment by c. Wed Jul 25 15:32:55 2012
I think there are a lot of mandatory life skills we should teach in high school that aren't there. Like knowing enough about budgeting to run a simple business, growing at least a bare minimum amount of food, etc. Probably a good thing education curricula aren't up to us, though, because Mark would send kids out to work at 13 and delete high school entirely. :-)
Comment by anna Wed Jul 25 16:12:18 2012

Now, if you made a web app where folks could just input their data and the website would spit out a map, that would be right up my alley.....

Comment by anna

Figured Anna would like this web application that calculates property boundaries online (with a few output options for GPS, spread sheets, Google earth...)

http://platplotter.appspot.com/

http://platplotter.blogspot.com/

This project started out as a spreadsheet but migrated to Google's online programming tools- would like to hear how it works for you,

Jason

Comment by Jason Tue Apr 22 16:05:05 2014