Look Carefully at Property Legal Descriptions

Those of us who attend the trustees’ sales on a regular basis have noticed how the crier emphasizes the total lack of responsibility that person has for information offered about the property offered at the trustee’ sale. Along with this expression of non-liability is this statement that the property offered has an address purported to be (a street name and property address is read)—but the crier is not responsible for an error in that address if there is one. Kind of scary stuff! Is it possible that the property we thought we were buying is not the property we bought? In a word—yes! There must be some way to protect ourselves against this unlikely possibility. There is!

We who spend our daylight hours reviewing the accumulated debt and winnowing out the probable fair market value of the property to uncover equity, sometimes jump at the convenience of property identification through the assessor’s parcel number (APN). This is not too clever an assumption.

Assessor’s parcel numbers can change on a particular piece of real estate in a county. Probably the best illustration brings up the farmer who owns a large parcel of land which is purchased and then subdivided into smaller lots. Obviously, the new parcel numbers together will make up the land area of the original larger lot, and the old assessors’ parcel number is invalid. But, more importantly, parcel numbers commonly are made up of three groups of numbers which in earlier times represented 1) the book number, 2) the page number, and 3) the assigned number of a particular piece of real estate in that county. Most often each of those identifying numbers consisted of three or more numbers—so we have the not uncommon possibility of unintentionally transposing nine or more numbers assigned to a particular parcel. Such an innocent transposition could be a product of the pressure of time to complete a parcel identification assignment—or whatever. The fact is that the presumed APN in one or more of the critical documents is flat out wrong!

The fact is that the assessor’s parcel number is not considered to be the legal description of the parcel. A much better source exists in the county records.

For the source of the valid legal description for a parcel in a county, we go the grant deed through which the property owner and seller transferred his/her interest in a property to a new owner. Somewhere in that deed will be the legal description of the property (usually though not always identified as “Exhibit A”). Depending upon the date when this grant deed was recorded, a legal description will be shown which refers to “lot and tract”, “lot and map”, or some other more complicated description known as “metes and bounds” (which usually describes in detail the perimeter of the parcel which when plotted will end at the beginning of the parcel description). In all candor, other legal descriptions exist which are beyond our innocent description in this article.

The point here is that the above description will show the limitations of the property rights and accountability of the new owners of the property. This is the legal description of the property purchased at the trustee’s sale. The description of the property given on the grant deed should be identical to the descriptions found in each of the trust deeds for which the defaulted owner is responsible. The emphasis here is on the word “identical”. A property description on the foreclosing trust deed which does not exactly match the description on the grant deed can present a giant legal problem for the defaulted owner, foreclosing lender, and the potential new owner of the property bought at a trustee’s sale.

The point here is that you and I should carefully examine the legal description on the full valued grant deed and assure ourselves that the same description is on all trust deeds secured by the chosen property. A serious legal problem could arise if such a discrepancy is uncovered after the property is sold at the trustee’s sale. Your job and mine is to carefully do our “due diligence” and make sure that such descriptions are a perfect match.