Glossary of Common Land and Property Terms

Deed books
Getty / Loretta Hostettler

The land and property industry has its own language. Many words, idioms and phrases are based in the law, while others are more common words that have a certain meaning when used in relation to land and property records, either current or historical. Understanding this special terminology is essential for correctly interpreting the meaning and purpose of any individual land transaction.

Acknowledgement

A formal statement at the end of a deed certifying the validity of the document.

“Acknowledgement” of a deed implies that the interested party was physically in the courtroom on the day that the deed was recorded to swear to the authenticity of his signature. 
 

Acre

A unit of area; in the United States and England an acre is equal to 43,560 square feet (4047 square meters). This is equal to 10 square chains or 160 square poles. 640 acres equals one square mile.
 

Alien

To convey or transfer unrestricted ownership of something, usually land, from one person to another. 
 

Assignment

A transfer, typically in writing, of right, title, or interest in property (real or personal). 
 

Call

The compass direction or “course” (e.g. S35W—South 35) and distance (e.g. 120 poles) that denotes a line in a metes and bounds survey
 

Chain

A unit of length, often used in land surveys, equal to 66 feet, or 4 poles. A mile is equal to 80 chains. Also called a Gunter's chain.
 

Chain Carrier (Chain Bearer)

A person who assisted the surveyor in measuring land by carrying the chains used in a property survey.

Often a chain carrier was a member of the landowner’s family or a trusted friend or neighbor. The chain carrier’s names sometimes appear on the survey. 
 

Consideration

The amount or "consideration" given in exchange for a piece of property.
 

Convey/Conveyance

The act (or documentation of the act) of transferring legal title in a piece of property from one party to another.

 
 

Curtesy

Under common law, curtesy is a husband’s life interest upon the death of his wife in the real property (land) that she solely owned or inherited during their marriage, if they had children born alive capable of inheriting the estate. See Dower for the wife’s interest in the property of her deceased spouse. 
 

Deed

A written agreement conveying real property (land) from one person to another, or transferring title, in exchange for a specified term called the consideration. There are several different types of deeds including:

  • Deed of Gift - A deed transferring real or personal property for something other than the normal consideration. Examples include a token amount of money (e.g. $1) or for “love and affection.” 
  • Deed of Lease and Release - A form of conveyance in which the lessor/grantor first transfers usage of the property by lease to the lessee/grantee for a short term and token consideration, followed within a day or two by execution of a release of his right to recover the property at the end of the lease, in exchange for a specified consideration that more accurately reflects the true value of the property. Together the two documents act, in effect, as a traditional deed of sale. The lease and release was a fairly common form of conveyance in England and in some American colonies, to circumvent laws of the Crown. 
  • Deed of Partition - Legal document used to divide property among several people. Often seen in wills where it is used to divide property among multiple heirs.
  • Deed of Trust - An instrument, similar to a mortgage, in which the legal title to real property is temporarily conveyed to a trustee to secure the repayment of a debt or fulfillment of other conditions. If the borrower defaults on the requirements, the property is forfeit; the trustee may transfer the property to the lender, or sell the land to clear the debt. A trust deed may sometimes be called a security deed. Some states use trust deeds in place of mortgages. 
  • Quitclaim Deed - A record of the release from a seller to a buyer of all rights or claim, real or perceived, in a piece of property. This does not guarantee that the seller is the sole owner, thus only covers relinquishment of all rights, or even possible rights, held by the seller; not the absolute title to the land. A quitclaim deed is most often used to clean up title to a property after the owner has died; for example, several heirs may quitclaim their shares of their parent’s land to another heir. 
  • Warranty Deed - A deed in which the grantor guarantees clear title to the property, and can defend the title against challenges. Look for language such as “warrant and defend.” The warranty deed is the most common type of American deed. 
     

Devise

To give or bequeath land, or real property, in a will. In contrast, the words "bequeath" and "bequest" refer to the disposition of personal property. We devise land; we bequeath personal property.
 

Devisee

The person to whom land, or real property, is given or bequeathed in a will.
 

Devisor

Person giving or bequeathing land, or real property, in a will.
 

Dock

To curtail or diminish; the legal process in which a court changes or “docks” an entail to land held in fee simple.
 

Dower

Under common law, a widow was entitled to a life interest in one-third of all land owned by her husband during their marriage, a right referred to as dower. When a deed was sold during the time of the couple’s marriage, most areas required the wife to sign a release of her dower right before the sale could become final; this dower release is usually found recorded with the deed. Dower laws were modified in many locations during the Colonial era and following American independence (e.g. a widow’s dower right might only apply to land owned by the husband at the time of his death), so it is important to check the statutes in place for the particular time and locality. See Curtesy for the husband’s interest in the property of his deceased spouse. 
 

Enfeoff

Under the European feudal system, enfeoffment was the deed that conveyed land to a person in exchange for a pledge of service. In American deeds this word more commonly appears with other boilerplate language (e.g. grant, bargain, sell, alien, etc.) referring only to the process of transferring possession and ownership of property. 
 

Entail

To settle or limit the succession to real property to specified heirs, generally in a manner different from that set out by law; to create a Fee Tail
 

Escheat

Reversion of property from an individual back to the state by reason of default.

This was often for reasons such as property abandonment or death with no qualified heirs. Most often seen in the original thirteen colonies. 
 

Estate

The degree and duration of an individual’s interest in a tract of land. The type of estate may have genealogical significance—see Fee Simple, Fee Tail (Entail), and Life Estate
 

et al.

Abbreviation of et alii, Latin for “and others”; in deed indexes this notation may indicate that there are additional parties to the deed not included in the index. 
 

et ux.

Abbreviation of et uxor, Latin for “and wife.” 
 

et vir.

A Latin phrase that translates to “and man,” generally used to refer to “and husband” when a wife is listed before her spouse. 
 

Fee Simple

Absolute title to property without any limitation or condition; ownership of land that is inheritable. 
 

Fee Tail

An interest or title in real property that prevents the owner from selling, dividing, or devising the property during his lifetime, and requires that it descend to a particular class of heir, typically lineal descendants of the original grantee (e.g. “the male heirs of his body forever”).

 
 

Freehold

Land owned outright for an indeterminate duration, rather than leased or held for a specified period. 

 

Grant or Land Grant

The process by which land is transferred from a government or proprietor to the first private owner or title holder of a piece of property. See also: patent.
 

Grantee

A person who buys, purchases or receives property.
 

Grantor

A person who sells, gives or transfers property.
 

Gunter's Chain

A 66-foot measuring chain, formerly used by land surveyors. A Gunter's chain is subdivided into 100 links, marked off into groups of 10 by brass rings used to assist with partial measurements. Each link is 7.92 inches long.  See also: chain.
 

Headright

The right to a grant of certain acreage in a colony or province—or the certificate granting that right—often awarded as a means of encouraging immigration to and settlement within that colony. Headrights could be sold or assigned to another individual by the person eligible for the headright.

 
 

Hectare

A unit of area in the metric system equal to 10,000 square meters, or about 2.47 acres.
 

Indenture

Another word for “contract” or “agreement.” Deeds are often identified as indentures. 
 

Indiscriminate Survey

A survey method used in the U.S. State Land states which uses natural land features, such as trees and streams, as well as distances and adjoining property lines to describe plots of land.

Also called metes and bounds or indiscriminate metes and bounds.
 

Lease

A contract conferring possession of land, and any profits of the land, for life or a certain period as long as the terms of the contract (e.g. rent) continue to be met. In some cases the contract of the lease may allow the lessee to sell or devise the land, but the land still reverts to the owner at the end of the specified period. 
 

Liber

Another term for a book or volume. 
 

Life Estate or Life Interest

The right of an individual to certain property only during their lifetime. He or she cannot sell or devise the land to someone else. After the individual dies, the title transfers according to law, or the document which created the life interest. American widows often had a life interest in a portion of their late husband’s land (dower). 
 

Meander

In a metes and bounds description, a meander refers to the natural run of a land feature, such as the “meanders” of a river or creek. 
 

Mesne Conveyances

Pronounced “mean,” mesne means “intermediate,” and indicates an intermediate deed or conveyance in the chain of title between the first grantee and the present holder. The term “mesne conveyance” is generally interchangeable with the term “deed.” In some counties, particularly in the coastal South Carolina region, you’ll find deeds registered in the Office of Mesne Conveyances.

 
 

Messuage

A dwelling house. A “messuage with appurtenances” transfers both the house, but also the buildings and gardens belonging to it. In some deeds the use of “messuage” or “messuage of land” appears to indicate land with an accompanying dwelling house. 
 

Metes and Bounds

Metes and bounds is a system of describing land by specifying the exterior boundaries of the property using compass directions (e.g. “N35W,” or 35 degrees west of due north), markers or landmarks where the directions change (e.g. a red oak or “Johnson’s corner”), and linear measurement of the distance between these points (usually in chains or poles). 
 

Mortgage

A mortgage is a conditional transfer of property title contingent on repayment of a debt or other conditions. If conditions are met within the specified period, the title remains with the original owner.


 

 

Partition

The legal process by which a parcel or lot of land is divided between several joint owners (e.g. siblings who jointly inherited the land of their father upon his death). Also called a “division." 
 

Patent or Land Patent

An official title to land, or certificate, transferring land from a colony, state, or other governmental body to an individual; transfers ownership from the government to the private sector.

 Patent and grant are often used interchangeably, although grant typically refers to the exchange of land, while patent refers to the document officially transferring the title. See also: land grant.
 

Perch

A unit of measurement, used in the metes and bounds survey system, equal to 16.5 feet. One acre equals 160 square perches. Synonymous with pole and rod.
 

Plat

A map or drawing showing the outline of an individual tract of land (noun). To make a drawing or plan from a metes and bounds land description (verb). 
 

Pole

A unit of measurement, used in the metes and bounds survey system, equal to 16.5 feet, or 25 links on a surveyor's chain. One acre equals 160 square poles. 4 poles make a chain. 320 poles make a mile. Synonymous with perch and rod.
 

Power of Attorney

A power of attorney is a document giving a person the right to act for another person, usually to transact specific business, such as the sale of land.

 
 

Primogeniture

The common law right for the first-born male to inherit all real property upon the death of his father. When a deed between father and son did not survive or was not recorded, but later deeds document the son selling more property than he bought, it is possible that he inherited through primogeniture.

Comparing deeds of possible fathers for a matching property description may help to determine the father’s identity. 
 

Processioning

Determining the boundaries of a tract of land by physically walking them in the company of an assigned processioner to confirm markers and bounds and renew the property lines. Owners of adjoining tracts often chose to attend the processioning as well, to protect their vested interest. 
 

Proprietor

An individual granted ownership (or partial ownership) of a colony along with the full prerogatives of establishing a government and distributing land. 
 

Public Land States

The thirty U.S. states formed from the public domain make up the public land states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
 

Quitrent

A set fee, payable in money or in kind (crops or products) depending on the location and time period, that a landholder paid a landowner annually in order to be free (“quit”) of any other rent or obligation (more of a tithe than a tax).

In the American colonies, quitrents were generally small amounts based on total acreage, collected mainly to symbolize the authority of the proprietor or king (the grantor). 
 

Real Property

Land and anything which is attached to it, including buildings, crops, trees, fences, etc.
 

Rectangular Survey

The system used primarily in public land states in which property is surveyed prior to grant or sale into 36-square-mile townships, subdivided into 1-square-mile sections, and further subdivided into half sections, quarter sections, and other fractions of sections. 
 

Rod

A unit of measurement, used in the metes and bounds survey system, equal to 16.5 feet. One acre equals 160 square rods. Synonymous with perch and pole.
 

Sheriff ’s Deed/Sheriff ’s Sale

The forced sale of an individual’s property, usually by court order to pay debts.

After appropriate public notice, the sheriff would auction the land to the highest bidder. This type of deed will often be indexed under the sheriff ’s name or just “sheriff,” rather than the former owner. 
 

State Land States

The original thirteen American colonies, plus the states of Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia, and parts of Ohio.
 

Survey

The plat (drawing and accompanying text) prepared by a surveyor showing the boundaries of a tract of land; to determine and measure the boundaries and size of a piece of property. 
 

Title

Ownership of a specific tract of land; the document stating that ownership. 
 

Tract

A specified area of land, sometimes called a parcel. 
 

Vara

A unit of length used throughout the Spanish speaking world with a value of about 33 inches (the Spanish equivalent of the yard). 5,645.4 square varas equal one acre.
 

Voucher

Similar to a warrant. Usage varies by time and locality. 
 

Warrant

A document or authorization certifying the individual’s right to a certain number of acres in a certain area. This entitled the individual to hire (at his own cost) an official surveyor, or to accept a prior survey.