Metes and Bounds Survey System

By Gary JD Gingras, M.Arch.


mete, meted, meting *a
1. to distribute or apportion by measure; allot; dole (usually followed by out ) : to mete out punishment.
2. Archaic. to measure.
[bef. 900; ME; OE metan; c. D meten, ON meta, Goth mitan, G messen to measure, Gk medesthai to measure]
mete *b
1. a boundary; limit.
2. a boundary mark or line.
[ME. < OFr, < L. meta, boundary, goal < IE. *meithr, a tree, MIr. methos, boundary mark]


    Most real estate in the original 13 US colonies, and in several of the other early states was surveyed with the Metes and Bounds *c  surveying system. This system is still in use today, although the tools used by surveyors have changed dramatically. Technological improvements have led to greatly increased accuracy.

    In the Metes and Bounds system, property descriptions can contain several types of information. The type and quality of information has changed over the years, as a reflection of the changes in surveyors' tools and capabilities. Historians, genealogists, and others*d  will be interested in the early development of the Metes and Bounds system, but we will concentrate on more contemporary uses of the system. In essence, the Metes and Bounds system is a method for describing the lines which bound a parcel of real estate.


    Property lines or survey lines are identified with a direction (bearing or heading) and a distance. An example is "N13oW 100 feet". This example uses the Compass Degree system of angle measurement.

Compass Degree Image
Illustration from Direct Line Software

    Compass Degree bearings are given by specifying a compass point (north or south), a number of degrees, and then another compass point (east or west). For example, N13oW is a bearing.

    The illustration shows examples of various bearings (or headings) at ten degree intervals. Each of the lines leaving the center of the diagram has its bearing shown at the end of the line. This system permits great precision, since each bearing can be specified in degrees, minutes, and seconds of angle. One minute is 1/60th of a degree, and one second is 1/60th of a minute. Each degree is, therefore divided into 3,600 seconds, and a full circle is 360 degrees, or 1,296,000 seconds (nearly 1.3 million seconds!).


    Distances can be measured in a variety of units, but many US surveyors continue to use the foot as the basic unit of measurement. For most general-purpose surveys, the foot is divided into 1/100ths. In building design and construction, it is convenient to note that 1/100th of a foot is very close to 1/8th of an inch.


    Here's an example of a survey plan demonstrating the Metes and Bounds survey system (left click opens a new window).

Metes and Bounds Image
625x875, 22.4K, Illustration by GJDG


    Here's an example of the legal description of an actual parcel of real estate, based on a Metes and Bounds survey, as recorded in Superior Township, Washtenaw County, MI. The Parcel # is the tax identification number. Notice how compactly this information can be written, through the use of some readily-identifiable abbreviations. Below the description are a MapQuest image and a GlobeXplorer aerial photo, showing the parcel described.

PROPERTY DESCRIPTION                   (PARCEL #10-02-400-014)
9800 ANN ARBOR ROAD       PLYMOUTH       MICHIGAN       48170
COM AT E 1/4 POST OF SEC, TH S 1 DEG 05' E 338.42 FT IN E LINE OF SEC, TH S 66 DEG 09' W 732.70 FT IN CENT OF HWY FOR PL OF BEG, TH S 14 DEG 06' E 550.03 FT, TH S 66 DEG 09' W 266.27 FT, TH N 22 DEG 40' W 542.46 FT, TH N 66 DEG 09' E 348.26 FT IN CENT OF HWY TO THE PL OF BEG, SEC 2, T2S-R7E, 3.82 AC.
9800 Ann Arbor Road MapQuest Image
529x528, 20.2K
9800 Ann Arbor Road GlobeXplorer Image
529x529, 264.8K


    Here's the Metes and Bounds Description for our Music Park Subdivision project (left click opens a new window).

Metes and Bounds Image
463x690, 10.9K, Illustration by GJDG


*a  Random House Unabridged Dictionary
*b  New World Dictionary
*c  See Jefferis and Madsen, chapter 11, for a discussion of the three major survey systems (Metes and Bounds, Rectangular, and Lot and Block).
*d  See Steve Broyles' discussion for historical aspects of the Metes and Bounds survey system.


  1. Broyles, Steve; Direct Line Software, downloaded from on 01/05/2002
  2. Guralnik, David; New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition; Simon and Schuster, New York NY, 1986
  3. Jefferis, Alan & Madsen, David A.; Architectural Drafting and Design, Third Edition; Delmar Publishers/International Thomson Publishing, Albany NY, 1991
  4. Kicklighter, Clois E.; Architecture, residential drawing and design; Goodheart-Willcox Company Inc., South Holland IL, 1990
  5. Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, CD-ROM Version; Random House Inc. & WordPerfect Corporation, 1993

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Revised 01/05/2002, 01/09/2002, 01/20/2002, 01/27/2002