How to Get a Property Survey

What Is a Property Survey?

There are several types of property surveys, but the types individuals are most likely to need are:

  • A boundary survey: This determines the perimeter of a property to establish exactly how much land is included within it and to ensure the title is accurate. It may also identify whether any neighboring properties have encroached upon the property as well as any easements, or areas where access to the property is shared by others. For example, if you’re buying a house near a beach, there may be an easement allowing the public to cross part of your property to reach the beach.
  • An ALTA/ACSM survey: Also called a mortgage survey or Extended Title Insurance Coverage Survey, this may be required by your mortgage lender or title insurance company. It determines property lines, identifies any utilities on the property and notes improvements (such as outbuildings, garages or fences). ALTA/ACSM surveys comply with requirements of the American Land Title Association and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping.
  • An elevation or floodplain survey: This shows the various elevations of the land to reveal how great the risk of flooding is.
  • A topographic survey: This type of survey identifies not only boundaries and man-made features of the land, such as buildings, but also natural features such as elevation, streams, lakes or hills.

For an additional cost, you can include boundary staking, which has surveyors put markers—typically concrete pillars or rebar—at the corners of the property and along property lines.

The cost of a property survey depends on:

  • The type of property survey.
  • The size, shape and terrain of the property. For instance, surveying acres of undeveloped mountain land with indistinct boundaries costs more than surveying a suburban home with a small fenced lot.
  • The amount of research that’s required to find previous property surveys, titles and other records regarding the property.
  • Travel time, due to the fact that surveyors charge more for driving long distances.

The average cost of a property survey in the U.S. is $504, according to homeowner services company HomeAdvisor, with the cost to survey a one-fifth-acre lot (the average U.S. home property size) ranging from $400 to $700.

Costs also vary by location. Angi, another homeowner services company, estimates average costs for a property survey as follows:

  • New York: $380 to $900
  • South Carolina: $250 to $600
  • Texas: $200 to $550
  • Oregon: $375 to $1,500
  • Illinois: $350 to $700


Finally, the Fieldwork

Now you can begin your scavenger hunt.

Step one: Always start from a known point. It must be something you can absolutely match with the written record. It may be a marker on your boundary, if someone has already made a positive ID of it. More likely, it will be a road crossing, a section corner, or even a neighbor’s marker (garnered from that plat you unearthed in the public records). Don’t trust ditch lines or fence corners, unless the record mentions them.

Step two: Measure off the course, direction, and distance exactly as the deed says. Flag the line with your ribbons as you go. Make sure that your flags all line up straight and in the right direction. (Your assistant can be a great help here.) Watch out for any iron or steel objects or anything carrying electric current while you walk — they can attract the compass needle and throw your readings off. If you come to a large obstruction, you can measure a line exactly parallel to your boundary line for a short distance until you get by the obstacle.

Surveys always measure distance on a horizontal pl

Surveys always measure distance on a horizontal plane, not along the ground slope. Unless you have a calculator that’s well versed in trigonometry (for equating slope distance to horizontal), you, too, must measure on the level. To do so, whenever you’re traversing hilly land, you and your assistant need to hold your tape (or a measured length of string) along your directional line and exactly level (use your level to determine this). Then, let your plumb bob hang vertically down from the tape (or string) end to determine where on the ground that horizontally measured distance falls. Repeat as needed to accurately measure across rises and dips.

Step three: Once you’ve traveled the full di

Step three: Once you’ve traveled the full distance in one direction, search for the boundary marker. This is always my favorite part. Will you know it when you see it? If you’re lucky, your plat or deed will mention how the surveyor marked corners. If not, you’re in for some Sherlock Holmes-style detective work.

You are looking for some object artificially place

You are looking for some object artificially placed in a certain spot. What kind of object? If your documents omit mention of the markers, look for a date of survey, a clue to the type of marker used. Nowadays, surveyors use well-anchored pipes or steel rods, capped with brass, aluminum, or plastic, embossed with the surveyor’s registration number. But years ago, they used anything handy. That included railroad spikes, wooden stakes, even broken glass (usually from a convenient whiskey bottle).

If you know you’re seeking a buried pin, you

If you know you’re seeking a buried pin, you can use your compass as a metal detector. Stand so the compass needle is pointing due north, then turn the compass vertical — so the needle points up. Keep facing north and move the compass back and forth over the approximate pin location, holding it about a half-inch to an inch off the ground. If the needle spins downward and points to the ground — dig.

The public land surveyors often spent months or years on the frontier, and couldn’t afford to carry around a load of markers. Thus the identity of their monuments varied widely. In the prairie, they filled pits with charcoal. In the mountains, where they spent most of their time hacking brush, they simply left an etched stone buried at the section corner. They would use witness trees in their notes to relocate the marker through triangulation.

Remember, markers don’t last forever. Wooden stakes may last less than 10 years. A “10 inch pine” in ancient notes may be a 20-inch pine today — or a rotting stump.

Step four: Proceed to the next point. Don’t give up if your search has so far proven fruitless. The next corner may lie in plain sight. And that’s a bonus, because the more corners you find, the greater your chances of finding the remaining ones. You’ll know what you’re looking for and be able to zero in on it from two sides.

One possible monkey wrench that may be throwing you oft: Your deed bearings may not be written in terms of magnetic north (a compass actually points to a “false North Pole”). They may be written in true north (referring to the real North Pole) or even in grid north (referring to an artificial regional standard that uses parallel “north-south” lines). Then too, even magnetic north shifts some over time. So if your bearing readings seem to be causing you trouble, take a compass reading between two known points of your deed or plat, and compare that to the recorded bearing. If there’s a significant difference, adjust all your bearing readings as needed to compensate.

Step five: Preserve the markers you find, but DO NOT MOVE THEM. They are considered legal boundaries only as long as they remain exactly where they are. You cannot move them to where you think they ought to be. Only a licensed surveyor can do that. The difference between you and a surveyor (besides $400 a day) is that only that person can establish property lines and testify in court on their whereabouts. If there are serious legal problems with your boundary, you will need a surveyor.

Do-it-yourself surveying can stave off disputes with your neighbors.

How much does a property survey cost?

The cost depends on what type of survey you need and the property’s size, location and history. A simple property boundary survey can cost anywhere from $100 to $600, while a mortgage survey costs an average of $500, according to data from HomeAdvisor. The more complex a property’s features and records history, the more you’ll likely pay for a surveyor’s time.

If you’re buying a home and need a survey to establish property lines or determine whether a property is in a floodplain, or if you’re required to provide the document to your lender, you will need to pay for the survey.

Locate Hidden Property Pins

Survey pins are thin iron bars, 2 or 3 feet long and sometimes capped with plastic, which the original survey crew inserted on the property lines. If you have access to a metal detector, move the device over the ground along the sidewalk to the curb to locate the survey pin. Pins may be buried just under the surface, or up to a foot below. A few days before you dig, however, you must call 811, the free, federally designated number that will route you to your local utility company. Ask the utility company to come out and mark any buried lines so you don’t unintentionally hit one. There’s no charge for this service, but if you damage a buried utility line, you could end up having to pay to repair it.


Property Survey Types

Because there are many different reasons for having a survey, there’s more than one type of survey, including:

  • Land surveys to check the boundaries of a lot;
  • Monumentation surveys for those who want to construct a fence on their boundary;
  • Mortgage surveys to show the boundaries of the whole property that will be mortgaged;
  • Topographic surveys to show the elevation of the land;
  • Floodplain surveys, which establish flood risk areas.

Therefore, when you need a survey, be clear on your reasons for it. This will allow you to better estimate the cost of your survey when you contact a surveyor.

Final Thoughts

Before building a new structure or installing a driveway, it’s vital to have a professional come out and mark the property lines. Property pins can be moved over the years, and in some cases, the boundary may extend past a property boundary marker if a previous owner bought or sold land to a neighbor. In a best case scenario, you may have more land than you thought you did. In a worst case scenario, you may have poured the driveway on the neighbors’ land, and they can make you tear it out.

How Much Does a Survey Typically Cost?

Different types of surveys have different price points, but the size of the home also factors into the overall cost. Furthermore, the location and the history of the property can also change the property surveyor’s costs. For example, a straightforward survey to determine the boundaries of the lot can cost as little as $100 to more than $600.

Likewise, a mortgage survey — which the borrower will pay and not the lender — will run around $500. And, no matter what type of survey you need for your property, the cost will go up as the complexity of the property increases for the surveyor.

How to Legally Determine Property Lines

Hire a Licensed Land Surveyor

To get an accurate determination of property lines that will stand up to legal scrutiny, you’ll need to hire a professional surveyor. (Note that most states require licensure of land surveyors; check your state’s requirements.)

While a professional survey may cost a a few to several hundred dollars—or more, depending on property location, size, shape, and terrain—it’s money well spent since property disputes cost a lot more in time, potential hefty legal fees, and neighborly goodwill.

How To Get A Property Survey

Now that you understand the benefits of property surveys, you’re probably wondering how you can get the most precise idea of your property’s legal boundaries. There are several ways to go about getting a property survey.

Hire A Land Surveyor

Luckily for grazing deer and hungry rabbits, not every plot of land is clearly defined and enclosed by a white picket fence. As land shifts over time, some initial property line markers may no longer exist. If you have any questions about property lines, the safest thing to do is hire a land surveyor.

A professional land surveyor is an expert in defining property lines. They use their skills, education and specialized field equipment to create legally binding property surveys. They can even serve as expert witnesses in court cases about land disputes. (Remember when we talked about encroachments earlier?)

During the property survey, a land surveyor will compare historical records and data with any existing markers to accurately define your property lines – and their findings are legally binding. This process takes time, effort and boots-on-the-ground legwork, so hiring a well-respected and well-reviewed land surveyor before purchasing land or beginning any new home expansions is your best bet to avoid any legal issues in the future. Call around for quotes before you decide, and be wary of any too-good-to-be-true low estimates.

Check The Property Deed

Several different types of deeds are used in real estate. A property deed is a written legal document that transfers ownership of a property from the grantor to the grantee. (Not to be confused with a title, which is the actual document that states who legally owns the property.) This type of deed will have several pieces of important information about the property: accurate owner names, exact address, tax map number, legal description, restrictions, and other information like conditions of the transfer and reservations of rights by a prior owner. While some deeds only reference a lot or block number, many include detailed measurements in the form of – yep, you guessed it – a property survey done by a land surveyor.

Search Property Survey Records

While there is no national archive of real estate records, many states require property surveys to be filed with the local government. You can search for property surveys by visiting the courthouse, property or assessor’s office where your new land is located. You will need to manually check transfers, requirements and restrictions on the property. This avenue can be time-consuming, but it’s a free to low-cost way to empower yourself with the knowledge and history of your new property’s legal boundaries.

Find A Property Survey Online

Can’t make it to the courthouse? No worries, many local governments keep property records online. To search for your piece of land, you’ll need specific details about the property you want to look up. Gather as much information as you can, like the street address, boundary descriptions and date of the last survey, and search the official county or assessor’s website where the property is located.

The more information you have, the easier it will be for you to find the survey you need. Not all records will be digitized, but the results of your search may help you narrow down the exact office where your survey is located. You can then call the office and ask if they can mail you a copy of the survey.

Geographical Information System (GIS) maps and property search sites are a better option if you have limited information on your property. However, these sites often charge a fee or require a subscription.

Contact The Previous Surveyor

Land surveyors keep copies of the property surveys they complete. (Legally, the survey belongs to them.) If you know the name and contact information of the previous land surveyor, try reaching out. It’s very likely that, for a fee, they can send you a copy. Land surveys usually last 5 to 10 years after they are completed, so if the previous survey was done a long time ago, it’s probably a good idea to get a new one done even if you locate the official document.

Why a Property Survey is Important

It may not seem like a big deal for some, but completing your due diligence when it comes to the property survey can save you from making a very costly mistake, like building your home on someone else’s land.

Bonnie and Kim Bowman did just that. A few years ago, daughter and mother Bowman purchased a plot of land in the small town of Stockton, Utah. They built a home, where they’re now living. The only problem is, the home they built wasn’t on the property they bought. Lamar Penovich owns the property where their home resides.

KUTV’s Get Gephardt investigated the situation. Apparently, Bonnie and Kim were shown the incorrect lot by their real estate agent, and agreed to buy the vacant land. When the final deed was completed, the only thing that identified the land was a Tax ID number, which showed which plot of land was which on a plot map at the county recorder’s office. The Tax ID corresponded to a plot of land that was down the street from the land they were shown and thought they were buying.

Then, the real trouble begins. The Bowman’s hired a construction company, who applied for a building permit on Lamar’s land. The permit was issued, and the Bowman’s home was built. According to Gephardt, the city attorney says that it isn’t the city’s responsibility to make sure the person building the home owns the land.

Unfortunately for the Bowmans and Penovichs, there’s not easy way to get out of this mess. It will most likely end up in a courtroom.

You may think this is a once in a lifetime occurrence, but unfortunately it has happened more than once. For example, a Rhode Island developer Four Twenty attempted to sell a 1.8 million-dollar-home in 2011. When the potential buyers hired their own property survey of the land, they found out that the home had been built on the land of a public park. The developers were ordered by the RI Supreme Court to remove the home to a piece of property the developers actually owned.

Luckily, the potential buyers hired a property surveyor and were able to point out the issue (and not purchase the problematic home!) That due diligence saved them from buying a very costly mistake.

Another couple in Florida hired a construction company to build a $680,000 dream home on some property they had purchased. Keystone Homes, the construction company blamed the property survey being completed on the wrong lot; a lot which was owned by a North Carolina couple since 2003.


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