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The legal identification is a necessary part of any real estate transaction. It describes the land being conveyed and can identify any easements or encroachments that may not have been disclosed by the seller. The legal identification contains a detailed description of a piece of land’s boundaries and information about its location. These descriptions can be local by nature, so any land within a specific geographic area will typically follow the same wording and references.

What Are Legal Descriptions?

Legal descriptions must include the county and state where the property is located. Beyond that, the description must contain sufficient information for a licensed surveyor to return later and clearly identify the property lines. Three methods of establishing boundaries are used in a legal description: the rectangular survey method, metes and bounds, and the block and lot system.

  • The rectangular survey method (sometimes called the government survey method) is typically used for large parcels of land and is rarely seen on deeds for homes. This method is used to describe regularly shaped tracts of real estate legally. It was popular during the westward expansion of the United States when the government was transferring large pieces of land to private ownership. The metes and bounds method was deemed too cumbersome at the time.
  • Metes and bounds is the earliest form of legal description used in the United States. Also known as the boundary description, it uses land boundaries and measurements. The description of the boundaries has a definite beginning and end point. Linear measurements and compass directions are “called” around the property’s perimeter. Each call consists of a distance (metes) and a direction (bounds). Metes and bounds descriptions can be complex, and a professional surveyor should be consulted if this is the chosen legal description.
  • Lot and block descriptions are also called “references to recorded plat.” This is the most common method of describing property in urban areas and is typically used for residential parcels built in a subdivision. The method includes the lot and block number, name or number of the plat, and the name of the county and state where the lot is located.

Below are some terms relevant to the legal identification section of a property report.


The Federal Identification Processing Standards Code (FIPS Code) is a five-character code. It is composed of a two-character state identifier and a three-character county identifier.

Census Number

The federal census number is a 15-character code for every block and tract in the United States, including Puerto Rico. It is composed of the FIPS Code, Census Tract, and Census Block.

  • First five characters: FIPS Code
  • Next six characters: Census Tract
  • Last four characters: Census Block

Assessor’s Parcel Number (APN)

An APN is also referred to as an assessor’s identification number, property identification number, property account number, parcel number, or tax account number. New York’s Suffolk County often refers to it as the Tax Map Number, Nassau County as the ParID, and New York City as the BBLE.

The APN is a unique identifier for a property, just like a social security number is a unique identifier for a US resident. This number is assigned to parcels of real property by the tax assessor of a particular jurisdiction. The assessor’s office used the APN to identify real property and collect taxes.

The format of APN strings can vary, but it is typically a concatenation of fields, such as the section, block, and lot. The formatting is specific to the jurisdiction’s standards where the property is located. As seen in the example below, the “number” may also include letters.

How Does ATTOM Help?

Legal identifications vary depending on the geographic location and the conventions of local governments. ATTOM data aggregates these public data so that customers and service providers have the most accurate property data points available to them to power their real estate transactions.

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