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What’s a Legal Description?

A legal description is a written description of where exactly the property is. This is based on the survey systems that have been carried out over the past 100 years.

DISTRICT LOTS: District lots are the most common of the legal systems found in BC. Generally speaking, a district lot is one mile by one-mile square, and has been marked out and recorded with a unique district lot (DL) number. Early in the century, when teams of surveyors went out to establish large areas of land for private ownership, they ran surveys en masse, assigning each block the next unused number. The result would be a fairly well-ordered system, in which DL 1000 would generally be next to DL 1001, which would be next to DL 1002, and so on. A typical land description would be DL 1000, Land District 5.

Keep in mind that not all district lots are the standard one-mile by one mile square. In early days the surveyor would often just mark out an area based on natural landmarks. For example, in the Chilcotin there are many district lots that are odd shapes and sizes, encompassing natural meadows and hay fields staked out for use by early homesteaders.

TOWNSHIPS & SECTIONS: Is the second most common form of property legal system in BC. The township system is, in effect, a nested grid system placed over top of the landscape. One mile by one-mile squares are created and labeled sections. Sections are arranged in six mile by six-mile grids called townships, and are then numbered from one to 36. Townships are then arranged into groups called ranges. A typical legal description would be Section 20 of Township 3, of Range 2, of Land District 5.

MINERAL SURFACE RIGHTS: The third common form of legal description in BC is the surface rights to a mineral claim. To the novice this sounds complicated, but in effect the only real difference between a Crown-granted surface right and a district lot is the history of how the property actually came into being.

No matter what type of legal description is being used, whether it be district lots, townships, or surface rights, the ownership of mineral rights (or undersurface rights) and the ownership of surface rights are always two entirely separate things. Surface rights are a resource owned and controlled by the province of BC and given through the issuing of a Crown grant. Undersurface rights are owned and controlled by the Government of Canada, and are given through the staking of a mineral claim. Unless you have specifically purchased the mineral rights for a property, all you ever own is the area’s surface rights.

During the late 1800’s, when the Federal Government controlled both the surface and undersurface tenures, there was not as clear a distinction made between surface and undersurface ownership. During the gold-rushes of the 1800’s, thousands of mineral claims were staked throughout the mountains of Southern BC. When the government issued undersurface rights to the mining claimant, they also issued a title to the surface of the property. Although our land title system has since evolved into two very distinct tenures, properties still exist from this period in history. A typical legal description would be DL 1001, the Surface Rights to Good Hope Mineral Claim, Land District 26.

A few common terms are widely used in the industry and need to be learned are:

A SECTION- one mile by one mile square. Equivalent to 640 acres.

A QUARTER SECTION- ½ mile by ½ mile square, or sometimes ¼ mile by 1 mile rectangle. Equivalent to 160 acres.

FRACTIONAL (ie. The NW 1/4 of the NE 1/4 of Section 12)- Oversized or undersized sections. A Quarter Section is a fractional.

A PLAN: A Plan is the map of the subdivision plan that created your lot, showing the lot boundaries and dimensions but no improvements such as buildings. You can find this by taking the plan number from your lot description to the land title office (listed in the Blue Pages under Government of British Columbia: Land Title Office). For a fee, land title office staff will copy the plan for you.

Complete legal descriptions can be found on a title search. A title search is a detailed examination of the ownership documents to ensure there are no liens or other encumbrances on the property, and no questions regarding the seller's ownership claim.

These can be ordered through BC Online ( or through your local Land Titles Office.