“Well how many acres actually make up this property?” If you have looked at more than about 5 parcels of land, you have no doubt come across a property where it wasn’t exactly clear how many acres constitute the given tract. How is it possible that there can often be discrepancies between a county plat map, county tax assessor report, survey, and deed to the same property?
Before we go any further, let me give a disclaimer that I am not an attorney, surveyor, or engineer. This article is not intended to provide legal or professional advice. Neither is this intended to disparage anyone associated with determining acreages. I am only sharing this for informational purposes and maybe to be mildly entertaining.
This past week I worked on three distinct properties that had varying degrees of confusion on exactly how many acres would be involved with a transaction. On one parcel I consulted 3 separate sources and received 3 different acreage amounts: the county plat map showed 1033 acres, the deed totaled up to 1007 acres, and the county tax assessor reported 995 acres. If you were selling this parcel, which acreage amount would you want to use calculate your sales price? If you were purchasing the property, which amount would be most appealing when you made your offer? So why are there three different acreage totals?
Let’s use this property as a case study that might help understand where some of the discrepancies originate. The property has been in the same family for 90 years, and all conveyances used the original legal descriptions. The property is bounded by a free-flowing river, and is subject to periodic flooding. There is extensive county road frontage on two places in the property. Put on your sleuth hats here, and let’s figure this out.
1. The property is bounded by a free-flowing river. What does a free-flowing river do over 90 years? It meanders. It floods. It erodes banks and deposits sandbars. The processes of accretion and reliction over a century have likely influenced the acreage total to some small degree.
2. How do county roads affect acreage ownership? Depending on your county or municipality and how they calculate acreages, you may notice the tax assessor reporting fewer acres than the deed or survey. Many times tax assessors will deduct the acreage associated with road, utility, or railway easements. They make these deductions because the amount of usable land has been reduced by the easement.
3. Over the past century there have been dramatic improvements in the technology associated with survey techniques and equipment. Crews no longer have to stretch long chains through the countryside, they are now able to do much more efficient work with GPS equipment that can be accurate to within centimeters.
So how do you decide which number to pick to go with? For me that answer is simple: I don’t. I am a real estate broker. My job is not to determine or define any acreage associated with a property. My job is to give the parties the information they need to make a decision. One thing I like about Mississippi real estate law as opposed to Alabama law (where I conduct most of my business), is that in Mississippi if you provide an amount of area (acreage or square feet) you must cite the source of that data. That is helpful for identifying the source of the area, and also transfers liability away from the broker.
For buyers or sellers who are reading this, here a couple of things you may want to know.
1. Plat books and county tax assessor websites provide maps that are NOT meant to be used for conveyance. If you will read the fine print inside the cover they explicitly say that. Here is a portion of the disclaimer from one of my plat books, “The contents of this book are not intended for any legal use in sales, trades, or transfers of land.” Almost every county tax assessor website I have seen also makes a similar disclaimer. They can be used for reference for location purposes and acreage estimates, but not for legal conveyance.
2. County mapping agents and tax assessor offices often report acreage estimates in two distinct ways. They will often show a Calculated acreage total and a Deeded acreage total. Due to the availability of excellent GIS mapping software, it is possible for them to draw the shape of a parcel and calculate (estimate) the acreage. There are often small discrepancies between the calculated and deeded acreage amounts.
3. A survey can usually determine the precise amount of acreage for a given parcel. Fewer than 10% of my transactions involve having a property surveyed. I mostly sell timberland, farms, and recreational properties, so the exact acreage is not necessary. People I deal with generally only want to feel comfortable with the location of boundaries and corners. However if knowing exact acreages, area, or distances is material to a purchase, then you likely need a current survey. Surveys can be expensive, but not nearly as costly as purchasing a property that is not suitable for your intended purpose.
4. It is often possible to provide a copy of the legal description to an attorney, land lender, or land broker and ask them to run the calls through a Deed Plotter. These are programs that allow you to enter the directional calls of the legal description and it will draw out the shape of the parcel and estimate acreage. Most importantly it will tell you if the calls to the deed “close”. This means that it will show if the legal description terminates at “the point of beginning”. Some lenders require that the calls to the deed close or be within 2% of closing in order to avoid having the property surveyed. They are generally willing to assume a small risk when there is a discrepancy.
There are many other considerations that may contribute to why discrepancies exist between sources that report acreage totals. The main point is that all parties to a transaction satisfy themselves to the amount, and establish an agreement that works for them. The job of the broker is not to be the determiner of the acreage, but to provide the resources necessary for the parties to make a decision. If you are considering purchasing or selling a piece of property, enlist the help of a professional that can assist you with this or any of a hundred other issues associated with a land transaction.
Written by: Jonathan Goode is an Accredited Land Consultant and a licensed real estate broker in Alabama and Mississippi. Jonathan is a co-host of the weekly radio program, The Land Show, which is meant to educate and entertain listeners about the many facets of landownership, management, and land investment.