Adequate Property Description Essential to Enforceable Real Estate Contract

Texas law requires that a contract’s subject matter be reasonably identified. With contracts for the purchase and sale of land, the subject matter is the property itself.  If the contract and related writings do not sufficiently describe the property to be conveyed, then the conveyance violates the statue of frauds.  Pick v. Bartel, 659 S.W.2d 636, 637 (Tex. 1983);  Troxel v. Bishop, 201 S.W.3d 290, 300 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2006, no pet.). Contracts which fail to meet the requirements of the statute of frauds are voidable  Eland Energy, Inc. v. Rowden Oil & Gas, Inc., 914 S.W.2d 179, 186 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1995, writ denied). Voidable contracts will not be enforced by courts.

In practical terms, this means that contracts for the sale of real estate that inadequately describe the real estate are unenforceable.

The sufficiency of a property’s description varies on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, describing a property’s location by reference to common items such as an “oak tree” or creek bed is good enough. Other times, merely supplying a property’s street address can be insufficient to form an enforceable contract.

This post contains a survey of Texas law concerning the requirement to sufficiently describe real estate being bought or sold.

Legal Standard for Sufficiency of Property’s Legal Description in a Contract

An enforceable real estate contract must furnish “within itself or by reference to other identified writings then in existence, the means or data by which the particular land to be conveyed may be identified with specific certainty.” Pick, 659 S.W.2d at 637 (citing Morrow, 477 S.W.2d at 539).  Although the contract documents need not necessarily list metes and bounds, it must furnish data that identifies the property with reasonable certainty. May v. Buck, 375 S.W.3d 568, 574 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2012, no pet.). The description must typically “furnish enough information to locate the general area . . . by tract survey and county, [and] it need contain information regarding the size, shape, and boundaries.” Reiland, 213 S.W.3d at 437.

Other Existing Writings May be Considered to Identify Property

Fortunately, the “four corners” of the contract [the facial contents of the document, itself] is not the only writing that courts may review.  Instead, courts may construe multiple writings prepared for the same transaction the contract. See, e.g., Wilson v. Fisher, 188 S.W.2d 150, 152 (Tex. 1945). Writings other than the express contents of the contract are considered “parol evidence.”

There are limitations, however, to the use of parol evidence to identify property.

First, any documents referred to and incorporated in the contested agreement must be in existence at the time the parties executed the contested agreement. Boddy v. Gray, 497 S.W.2d 600, 603 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1973, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

Additionally, parol evidence cannot be the sole means to “supply[] the location or description of the land” and can only help identify the land “from the data in the [writing].” Wilson, 188 S.W.2d at 152 (citing O’Herin v. Neal, 56 S.W.2d 1105 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 1932, writ ref’d)).

Examples of parol evidence which may be considered to help identify a property are surveys, plats, exhibits, and contract addenda.

Insufficient Legal Descriptions

Anytime it is possible that more than one tract of land fits the furnished description, the statute of frauds is not satisfied. This is because the writings do not sufficiently describe the property to be conveyed.

Other examples of insufficient writings include the following:

  • Reference to a non-existent survey “to be completed” which estimates acreage within a larger tract. See Dayston v. Brooke, ___ S.W.3d. ___, No. 11-18-00288-CV (Tex. App. Oct. 8, 2020)( “On its face, “+/- 81.50” acres is an indefinite amount and insufficient to describe land with certainty.”).
  • An unidentified portion of a larger tract is insufficient. See, e.g., Morrow, 477 S.W.2d at 540 (finding land described as “[t]he north acreage . . . out of 145.8 acre tract of the Jefferson McGrew Survey No. 245” insufficient to satisfy the statue of frauds).
  • A street address, standing alone, if there is uncertainty about the amount of land in the conveyance. See, e.g., Friedlander v. Christianson, 320 S.W.2d 404, 407 (Tex. App.—Houston 1959, no writ) (finding a conveyance describing a house by address insufficient because the conveyance did not also specify whether, or how much of, the underlying tract of land was included). Note: A street address may be sufficient when only one tract of land meets the description. See, e.g., Butler v. Benefield, 589 S.W.2d 778, 780 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1979, writ ref’d n.r.e.).

Parties’ Personal Knowledge Insufficient to Cure Inadequate Legal Description

Litigants faced with contested real estate contracts have unsuccessfully argued that a contracting party’s “personal visit to” or “personal familiarity” with a property cures an inadequate legal description.  However, the Texas Supreme Court’s held in Morrow that the “knowledge and intent of the parties will not give validity to [an agreement].”

Conclusion

Under Texas law, contracts for the purchase and sale of land, are not enforceable unless they describe the land to be sold.