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When buyers begin a land search, they’re often surprised to learn that an undeveloped parcel might not yet have a US Postal Service address associated with it. Identifying a parcel might mean relying on its legal description, and navigating to the property might require GPS coordinates, most commonly formatted as latitude and longitude.
In basic terms, latitude denotes a specific location’s position north or south of the equator, measured in degrees. Longitude denotes a position east or west of the Prime Meridian, an imaginary line (like the equator) running north-south through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. Any location on Earth can be precisely identified by the intersection of its latitude and longitude coordinates.
The ability to precisely note any given physical location with latitude and longitude has endless utility: noting locations of property corners, buildings, creek crossings, trailheads or any other landmarks; sharing rendezvous points with guests or hunting companions; or just offering a more precise means of location than an address.
Latitude and longitude coordinates are most commonly expressed in one of two formats: degrees, minutes, and seconds – for example, 38° 53′ 23.2404” -77° 0′ 32.583” – or decimals – for example, 38.889789, -77.009051; those coordinates, in either format, identify the location of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. That “minus” sign in the longitude coordinate is important, and comes into use in defining the hemisphere in which a point is located; negative latitudes are south of the equator, while negative longitudes are west of the Prime Meridian. Using the coordinates above without the minus sign for longitude specifies a location in western China.
Coordinates can easily be converted between formats. The Federal Communications Commission has a handy online conversion tool at www.fcc.gov/media/radio/dms-decimal.
Set your browser to maps.google.com. Click any location on the map. At the bottom of the screen, you’ll see details on the location you’ve selected, including an address (or an approximation of one) and the latitude and longitude coordinates for that spot.
Open Google Earth on your desktop. Simply move your mouse over the map. Look in the lower right corner of the Google Maps window and you’ll see latitude and longitude for the map location that’s under your mouse pointer. (You’ll also see the altitude for the location.)
Open your Google Maps app on your smartphone. Hold your thumb on a location on the map. A red pin should appear at that location, and at the bottom of your screen you should see a heading reading “Dropped Pin.” Beneath that heading, you’ll find details about that location you’ve specified, including latitude and longitude coordinates. The iPhone Maps app works similarly: Hold your thumb on a map location and details, including coordinates, will appear at the bottom of your screen under the heading “Marked Location.”
This is one of the simpler interfaces available for obtaining latitude and longitude. Open the Google Earth app and simply navigate (spinning the on-screen globe with your thumb) to any location. Latitude and longitude will be displayed at the lower right of your screen.
There are numerous other smartphone apps, free and paid, that can provide coordinates. One, called simply “Coordinates,” brings up a basic map. As you navigate with your thumb, latitude and longitude update at the bottom of the screen.