Metes and bounds is a system or method of describing land, 'real' property (in contrast to personal property) or real estate. The system has been used in England for many centuries, and is still used there in the definition of general boundaries. By custom, it was applied in the original 13 colonies that became the United States, and in many other land jurisdictions based on English Common Law.
Typically the system uses physical features of the local geography, along with directions and distances, to define and describe the boundaries of a parcel of land. The boundaries are described in a running prose style, working around the parcel of the land in sequence, from a point of beginning, returning back to the same point. It may include references to other adjoining parcels of land (and their owners), and it, in turn, could also be referred to in later surveys. At the time at which the description is compiled, it may have been marked on the ground with permanent monuments placed where there were no suitable natural monuments.
The term 'metes' refers to a boundary defined by the measurement of each straight run, specified by a distance between the terminal points, and an orientation or direction. A direction may be a simple compass bearing, or a precise orientation determined by accurate survey methods. The term 'bounds' refers to a more general boundary description, such as along a certain watercourse, a stone wall, an adjoining public road way, or an existing building.
The system is often used to define larger pieces of property (e.g. farms), and political subdivisions (e.g. town boundaries) where precise definition is not required or would be far too expensive, or previously designated boundaries can be incorporated into the description.
A typical description for a small parcel of land would be: "beginning with a corner at the intersection of two stone walls near an apple tree on the north side of Muddy Creek road one mile above the junction of Muddy and Indian Creeks, north for 150 rods to the end of the stone wall bordering the road, then northwest along a line to a large standing rock on the corner of John Smith's place, thence west 150 rods to the corner of a barn near a large oak tree, thence south to Muddy Creek road , then down the side of the creek road to the starting point."
The sequence begins with an identified corner serving as benchmark, then gives distance, direction and various boundary descriptions as if one were walking the bounds pacing off the distance to the next corner where there is a change of direction. Generally where watercourses are a part of the bounds their meander is taken as a straight line between the established corners and their monuments.
In many deeds, the bearing is described not by a degree measure out of 360 degrees, but instead by indicating a direction north or south (N or S) followed by a degree measure out of 90 degrees and another direction west or east (W or E). For example, such a bearing might be listed as "N 42°35' W", which means that the bearing is 42°35' counterclockwise (to the west) from north.
This has the advantage of providing the same degree measure regardless of which direction a particular boundary is being followed; the boundary can be traversed in the opposite direction simply by exchanging N for S and E for W. In other words, "N 42°35' W" describes the same boundary as "S 42°35' E", but is traversed in the opposite direction.
In most distance measures, especially those in older deeds and where measuring distances over a furlong, boundary lengths are listed in rods or poles instead of feet or meters. Rods and poles are equivalent measures equaling 16.5 feet.
Some courts have established a list of priorities to resolve inconsistent descriptions of corners. In descending order starting with the most reliable: (1) natural monuments, (2) artificial monuments, such as roads, and marked or surveyed lines, (3) adjacent tracts or boundaries, (4) courses or directions, (5) distances, and (6) area or quantity.
These kinds of problems caused the United States to largely replace this system except in the east. Beginning with the Land Ordinance of 1785, it began a transition to the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) used in the central and western states. The eastern, or original states, continue to use the metes and bounds surveys of their founders.