The Real Dirt: understanding legal descriptions and why they matter

By Matthew Page

Everyone gets excited when they find the perfect house the floor plan works, the backyard is great and the street seems idyllic. An offer is submitted, friends and family are called , and you are filled with excitement about your purchase. “What house are you buying?, where is it?” everyone asks. You tell them a street name, a number, and that the yard looks “really big”.  The municipal street address is usually all most people think about when it comes to understanding the land they are actually buying. Unfortunately a street address doesn’t tell you much at all. To really know the ground beneath your feet (and how much of it is actually yours)  you have to look to, and understand,  the legal description of a property.

So what is the legal description anyways? (besides that part of an agreement of purchase and sale with a seemingly random mash up of letters and numbers that might as well be written in ancient Greek).  Here is a primer on what it all means and why it matters:

Survey Says:

Street addresses are great for (usually) getting mail to your door but are not nearly precise enough to define and divide up land between owners. As anyone who has ever had a fence line dispute with a neighbour knows, people care about knowing and controlling their property down to the last inch. Fortunately surveyors accurately measure land and illustrate those measurements on surveys. A survey gets submitted to the local Land Registry Office, where it is given a unique registration number and made available to the public. There are dozens of local Land Registry Offices in Ontario and each one has a unique prefix (Prince Edward County is “47” for example, Hastings County is “21”, etc). Once a survey is accepted by a Land Registry Office it becomes a “registered plan” or “R-plan” for short. When you see something like  “47R934” in an agreement it really just means it is the 934thregistered plan (“R”) in the Land Registry Office for Prince Edward County (the number before the “R” (ie “47”)  will be the same for all plans in a given Land Registry Office).

What’s my part in all this?

R-Plans can (and often are) then divided into several smaller parts not surprisingly referred to as “parts” on a plan. There is no limit as to how many parts there can be on a plan. These “parts” are used by surveyors to breakup larger parcels of land when there is a specific reason to more precisely describe portions of the land. Maybe there is a right of way in favour of the neighbour across the back 15 feet  of your lot, maybe it describes where Bell Canada is allowed to bury phone lines, or maybe the previous owners were thinking about splitting up their lot into two parcels. Whatever the reason the R-plan and the various “parts” in it are (in most cases) what the Land Registry Office uses to actually describe and know the legal boundaries between owners of land.  So when it says “PARTS 2&3 47R934” it means you are buying the 2ndand the 3rd(but not the 1st, 4th, etc) parts on the 934thregistered Plan in Prince Edward County.  Want to know exactly how big the lot is that you are buying?  Look at the parts on the plan. Here you can see the actual measurements taken by the surveyors, the distances between the stakes they have put in the ground and the exact shape of lot you are purchasing.

An instrument of understanding:

“Instruments” are essentially public notices allowed by the Land Registry Office that get placed (or “registered”) against a particular parcel of land. A mortgage for example is a type of instrument, so is a deed which transfers ownership from the seller to the buyer. Other instruments can create rights for your property in neighbouring lands or put obligations on your land in favour of others. Instruments (like R-plans) each get a unique registration number. These alpha numeric numbers look like “PE1234” or “QR4567” and your land can either be “subject to” (shortened to “S/T”) or “together with” (“T/W”) these instruments. On their own these numbers don’t mean anything. The actual instrument document itself  has to be retrieved from the Land Registry Office by your realtor to understand what is going on. If you see one of these instruments in the legal description for a property you are buying a flag should go up in your mind and further investigation is required if you don’t want a nasty surprise.  Not interested in having your property “subject to” the rights of the neighbour to drive over a portion of it, or would you like to  know that there is an easement for a natural gas pipeline running under your land? A good realtor will investigate instruments before submitting an offer on your behalf. The situation you want to avoid is contractually committing yourself to a purchase only to find out that the property you want is actually “subject to” something that makes it no longer fit your needs.

Remember you are actually buying the legal description of a property not an address on a street. Understanding some of how that legal description is made and what it means will make you a better informed  home buyer. Your realtor should be reviewing the legal description of the property with you before an offer is made so that everyone understands exactly what it is that you are getting.

More questions? The Realtors at Henderson Williams Realty Brokerage are here to help with expertise, deep County knowledge and a commitment to service excellence. Contact us at: 613-476-7400 or email at: