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Land Surveys: What to Know About a Property Survey

By Bill Gassett | November 17, 2020

A Land Survey Explained

Are you considering paying for a survey of a piece of property? When you purchase land, it's not a bad idea to know exactly what you are paying for. Land surveys give you more information about the property you want to buy and can help reveal its true value.

Let's review the things you need to understand about land surveys before you decide to get one. Understanding what a land survey does is especially vital when buying a home.

The Advantages of Having a Property Survey

What is a Land Survey
What is a Land Survey

Choosing to bring in a professional to conduct a property survey for you isn't cheap, but there are clear benefits. It provides you with a very accurate assessment of your property's boundaries and places structures within a specific plot of land.

Any sloping ground will be accurately measured to understand better how it can be used and how it affects the rest of the plot. If you didn't already know, you would find out if the land is on a floodplain or if there are any easements and utilities within the boundaries.

This can help when you want to start a construction project on the land. It will ensure work doesn't start on a structure over utilities running through the property.

The survey can be filed in official records at the recorder’s office. This will be considered legally valid for 10 years, and you might be able to find previous surveys on your property through a title company.

Different Types of Surveyors

Not all land surveyors specialize in the same areas. There are three main types of property surveyors, each with clearly defined roles within a project. What a property surveyor does in a home sale is pretty clear, but did you know they also do other meaningful tasks?

Land or Boundary Surveyors

You are likely to use this type of surveyor if you need help establishing boundaries on a property you want to purchase. They also help with the exact positioning of buildings when the homeowner wants to extend.

Typically, the buyer's lender will be the one who will hire the property surveyor. They will report back to the bank, letting them know the structures on the property are within the boundary lines or not. Land surveyors also report whether there are any existing zoning violations.

Construction Surveyors

Civil engineering services are needed to know the exact position of all the land features. The surveyor will also give the engineer information on the depth of foundations required based on the land's physical features.

Geodetic Surveyors

The geodetic survey is required when an accurate understanding of the Earth's geometric shape is required. This could be needed if the size of the surveyed land is considerable.

Different Land Surveys

A land surveyor will undertake a few different types of surveys.

Boundary Surveys

If there are any disputes over the exact boundary of a property, this type of survey should settle them. It can solve legal disputes and easements - perhaps a right-of-way dispute - over the land you own.

ALTA (American Land Title Association) Surveys

This type of survey can be required when purchasing a home. A title company might need it before they will issue title insurance.

The ALTA survey is often called a mortgage survey because lenders sometimes need it before agreeing to finance the purchase.

Location Surveys

The location survey is similar to the boundary survey but includes more information on the buildings constructed on the plot. This may be required if the owner needs to apply for a zoning permit or to show that their property isn't closer to the boundary than it should be.

Site Planning Surveys

If the site is developed or improvements are made to the property, this survey can help when applying for building permits. Developers must submit subdivision plans to local building departments for neighborhoods they wish to construct.

A full set of working drawings are submitted and eventually approved by local boards.

Construction Surveys

This type of survey is created to ensure contractors conduct land clearing and build structures where they should be. Whether building a stick-built or modular home, a land survey is vital. Without these kinds of surveys, mistakes would be easily made regularly.

Topographic Land Surveys

If significant improvements are planned, a topographic survey helps define the physical features of the plot. This might include slopes, hills, rivers, ponds, trees, and buildings.

Builders and developers will also use a topographical survey when constructing neighborhoods. Having one allows them to plan better the placement of roads, sidewalks, and housing.

Subdivision Surveys

This survey exists to help when subdividing land and filing it with the county recorder's office. Again, these plans help a developer determine the property's viability. The number of lots they can get and the number of roads that need to be built are key considerations.

How Property Surveys are Carried Out

You might have seen land surveyors on a property with a tripod taking measurements. But they use a lot more equipment than that to establish all the dimensions of the plot.

They use instruments to accurately measure land, including a theodolite, a total station, an altimeter, 3D scanners, GPS systems, and more. These details are then compiled in specialist software to provide a more accurate assessment. They then use this information to create a report given to the customer.

You aren't only paying for the time the surveyor spends on the property. They have to check details from different sources to find all the information about the land that will end up in your report. There could also be legal implications if they make a mistake, so the surveyor must be diligent in their work.

How Much Does a Land Survey Cost?

Several factors affect the cost you will have to pay if you want your property surveyed. This will include your location, the distance the surveyor travels to the property, and the land size you want to be surveyed.

Depending on the rules in the state you are located in, the surveyor may need to be fully licensed. This naturally adds a little to the price you will end up paying.

The costs will depend on the exact type of survey you need but expect an average survey to cost more than $500.

If you need an ALTA survey conducted, costs can be between $2,000 and $3,000. The ALTA survey has to follow some stringent rules, like a more in-depth boundary survey. It requires the surveyor to do a lot of research and provide documentation to prove their findings. This naturally takes more time and adds to the cost.

Since the costs involved in having a survey are significant, you need to consider if it is worth the expense or absolutely essential.

Final Thoughts on Land Surveys

A land survey will help establish the legal boundaries of a property; this can help when you are looking to buy or protect your investment if you already own it. When you go to sell your home, the last thing you'll want to discover is a zoning violation or a structure over a lot line.

When you are looking to hire a surveyor, recommendations can be useful. But however you find surveyors, get quotes from at least three. This will help you avoid either paying too much or too little. A meager offer could mean the surveyor isn’t going to provide the level of service you need.

Hopefully, you have found this guide to land surveys to be useful. It is vital always to do your due diligence when buying a piece of property. A land survey is a crucial part of that.

Bill Gassett is an authority in the real estate industry with 38 years of experience. Bill is well respected for his informative articles for buyers, sellers, and fellow real estate agents to make sound decisions. His work has been featured on RIS Media, the National Association of Realtors, Inman News, Newsbreak, Credit Sesame, Realty Biz News, and his own authoritative resource, Maximum Real Estate Exposure. He has been on of the top RE/MAX agents in New England over the last two decades.
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