Real Estate Terms

What is the Rectangular Survey System?

The Rectangular Survey System, also known as the Government Survey System or Public Land Survey System, is a method of plotting land boundaries in the United States using a large grid made up of rectangles. The grid is divided into smaller sections known as quadrangles, townships, sections, half-sections, and quarter-sections used to describe property boundaries in most of the United States.

What Is the Rectangular Survey System?

The Rectangular Survey System was established in 1785 to identify, divide, and measure land, creating boundary lines for property owners. As the United States grew from its original 13 colonies, a system was needed to identify who owned what land. This system was part of the Land Ordinance enacted in 1785 by President Thomas Jefferson.

Before the Rectangular Survey System was established, the Metes and Bounds survey was the only way of identifying who owned what land. Metes and Bounds surveys are still used in many states; however, they differ from the Public Land Survey System as they are not based on any grid but instead identify objects on the land, measurements, and compass directions.

The rectangular survey system is comprised of principal meridian lines that cover most states in the US, running north to south and baselines running east to west. These principal meridian lines are named or numbered to identify their location. Using those lines for references, quadrangles are formed, which are smaller squares identifiable by where they are located near the principal meridian and baseline. Those quadrangles are divided into smaller squares called townships. This process continues, creating a smaller and smaller grid that can be used to identify the specific location of any property.

What Is the Rectangular Survey System Used For?

The Rectangular Survey System is used for surveying land for sale and settling, along with the Metes and Bounds survey method. They are often combined to create a more accurate map of property boundaries.

How Do You Use the Rectangular Survey System?

The rectangular survey system may just be a giant grid covering the United States, but understanding how it is used can seem a little complex, so stick with us while we cover the basic definitions.

Principal Meridians

The largest grid comprises of two types of lines, principal meridians, and baselines. Principal meridians run perpendicular to the earth’s equator, north to south. Baselines run parallel to the earth’s equator, from east to west. When identifying property locations, you will always reference which principal meridian it is located near. The land is then further divided into quadrangles.

Quadrangles

Guide meridians and standard parallels form quadrangles. Guide meridians run north to south, parallel with principal meridians. Standard parallels run east to west along with the baseline. The lines are spaced 24 miles apart, creating squares that are around 576 square miles.

It’s worth noting; quadrangles are not used when identifying land with the rectangular survey method, only the principal meridians, baselines, and townships and sections.

Townships

Townships are 36 miles square, 6 miles on each side, and are located within quadrangles. There are 16 townships in each quadrangle. Township locations are identified by tier or township lines and ranges. Township lines run parallel to the baseline, from east to west, defining how far north and south of the baseline a township is located. Range lines run parallel to the principal meridian and determine how far east and west the township is of that meridian.

All township locations are defined by referencing how from they are from the principal meridian and baseline. For example, you would say “it is in township 3 north, range 5 east” to identify a property. That means it is 3 townships north of the baseline and 5 townships east of the principal meridian.

Sections

Townships are then broken down into “sections,” which are 36 blocks, each being 1 square mile. Remember, a township is 6 miles by 6 miles. Each section is numbered, starting at the top right corner and going back and forth, left to right, in a serpentine pattern. One section is 1 mile, or 640 acres square, so it still covers a large piece of land and must be divided again.

Sections are further broken down into half and quarter sections repeatedly until you identify the exact location of a property. For example, you can say  the “east ½ of section 3.” That means the property is 320 acres and located on the east half of that section. If you want to define smaller properties, we can take the “south east ¼ of section 3,” which will only be 160 acres.

Putting it Together

Government Survey System or Public Land Survey System functions just like a mailing label on an envelope. A mailing label lists your name, street address, city, state, and country. The survey system essentially functions the same way. Principal meridians, quadrangles, townships, then sections – it’s that easy, don’t overthink it.

How Does Metes and Bounds Differ From the Rectangular Survey System?

As we mentioned earlier, two primary survey methods are used in the United States, the Metes and Bounds System, and the Rectangular Survey System.

Metes and bounds were used as the primary survey method before 1785 and were fairly inaccurate, especially before GPS technology. The system uses Metes, which are straight lines connecting two points, and Bounds, which are identifiable aspects of a property. For example, a Bound could be a road, tree, river, or large rock.

A Metes and Bounds survey may read something like “commencing from the large apple tree 1 mile to the north, west along the river bed.” However, rivers can be moved, and trees can die, so as you can see, this method is wildly inaccurate over time.

The Rectangular Survey Method established a standard measurement and origin point for all properties to follow using a grid system. The Metes and bounds system dates back centuries to the original 13 colonies, while the rectangular survey method was established in 1785 and used in all 36 states formed after that point.

Which States Use the Rectangular Survey System?

The states that use the rectangular survey system are:
Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Alabama, and Florida.

The real estate exam probably won’t ask you what states use the Metes and Bounds system or the Rectangular Survey System, but they may ask you which system your state uses.

What to Know for the Real Estate Exam?

For the real estate exam, you’ll need to know the two primary survey methods. The first is the Metes and Bounds survey—the second is the Rectangular Survey System, also known as the Government Survey System or Public Lands Survey System.

You may be asked to identify sections in the Rectangular Survey System, so remember the order from specific to general. We have Quarter sections, Half sections, township sections, townships, quadrangles, and principal meridians with baselines.

There may also be questions about how much land is in a specific plot or section. Remember, there are 36 square miles in a township, and each section is 1 square mile. 1 Square mile is equal to 640 acres.

For example, how many acres are there if you take the North East ¼ of the South 1/2 of section 3 in township 8 North and range 5 west?

We know that there are 640 acres in one section, and we are taking a 1/4 of a 1/2 section. Simply multiply 640 by ¼ or 0.25, which equals 160, then multiply 160 by 1/2 or 0.5, which equals 80. You have 80 acres in that plot of land, and that is your answer.

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