3 Ways to Determine Property Lines

What Are Property Lines?

Put simply, a property line is a legal boundary for a piece of land that distinguishes it from other pieces. In legal terms, property lines very distinctly denote who owns which pieces of land by dividing land cleanly into parcels or plots. In some cases, property lines follow very obvious boundaries, including fences, roads, ditches, streams and rivers. But in other cases, property lines can be totally invisible. In these situations, certified legal records of property lines may be the only proof that the property lines are legitimate. For these reasons, you must understand where your property begins and ends if you are a homeowner. In doing so, you can determine exactly what kinds of home improvement projects you can undertake without encroaching on your neighbor’s property and avoid unpleasant legal disputes. In addition, you may need to have official records of your property lines if you want or need title insurance.

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Find Property Lines Online

Every day, more technology is available online, and property maps are no exception. Many counties are now digitizing their property records and uploading them to interactive sites that allow residents to access them from their own computers. These sites make use of a geographical information system (GIS) in order to pull up a lot or parcel of land using an address or an owner’s name. Look on your county’s website and then look around for terms like “Property Search” or “Parcel Search” to access the GIS map.

Other online GIS sites may also be able to help, such as AcreValue, a favorite tool of real estate agents for finding property lines. The lines will give you a general idea of where your property boundaries lie, but they cannot pinpoint the exact property markers for you. For that, you’ll need to use one of the other methods.

Why is it important to know the location of your property lines? 

Property lines are in place to keep one property owner from encroaching on another owner’s land or compromising their privacy by building too close to their house. A typical encroachment might be tree limbs that grow past your property and overhang into a neighbor’s yard or a driveway poured to extend onto a neighbor’s property. When you know exactly where your property lines fall, you’ll avoid accidentally encroaching on your neighbor’s land.

If you plan to build a permanent structure, you’ll want to be as accurate as possible, and ordering your own land survey is the best option. In most states, you are required to call a diggers hotline 811 to request buried utility information before you build a fence, plant a tree, or extend your driveway. This call ensures you know the location of any buried wires or irrigation systems to avoid causing damage. Within a few days’ notice, someone from your local utility company should be able to mark county wires or pipes with spray paint or flags.

Since property line information can be valuable to someone you may sell your house to, you will want to keep all records. Keep a copy of a new survey you’ve completed, a plat map, or any information from the city or county offices in digital or hard copy format. If you do a new survey, you may also need to register it with your county assessor or recorder. During the sale of a property, the title company will search for encroachment of one property into another. They may refuse title insurance to the seller if they find a property line dispute.

When you know how to find your property lines, you’ll gain peace of mind for any project that could come close to the edge of the property. Showing respect for your neighbor and their property rights can help you avoid a lawsuit. 

Dig Out Your Deed for Additional Info

In older neighborhoods, property owners may have purchased or sold off portions of their yards. Locating a survey pin won’t give you this information, but the most recent legal description recorded on your deed will list any such changes. If you don’t have a copy of your deed filed with your homeowner records, get one at the register of deeds office, often located within your county courthouse.

How Property Lines Are Determined

We know that fences don’t line every landowner’s plot, so how do we define where one yard ends and the neighbor’s begins? It’s a little less than precise, but to help make things more standardized, nearly the entire country has adopted a protocol called the Rectangular Survey System (RSS).

Land surveyors use RSS to develop a system of rectangular parcels of land that can be added and measured to create an outline of the property. RSS works by dividing all land parcels into roughly 1-mile sections. The word “roughly” is used because these sections are hardly ever perfect.

Roads, creeks, rivers, lakes and tree lines often get in the way of the perfect mile. The lines are then separated into two types: meridians and baselines. Meridians run north and south, baselines run east and west.

The RSS system was first used in eastern Ohio in an area called the Seven Ranges. The epicenter of the system is on the Ohio – Pennsylvania border near Pittsburgh. County lines regularly follow this survey, and the creation of it in the Midwest explains why many counties are rectangular in shape. This system has since become the nationwide standard of how we calculate property lines today.

Property Lines And Home Appraisals

So, what does this mean for home appraisers? While conducting an appraisal of a given property, the appraiser will visit the county assessor’s office in the local municipality to acquire property records. They will look at the parcel ID and legal description to verify the basic description of the property location.

If the property is in a subdivision, then it will most likely be measured by RSS, and property lines can often be identified on the associated plat map. If the appraiser cannot verify the property boundaries, they will have to request a copy of a survey that would have to be performed by a licensed surveyor.

Why You Might Need to Know Your Property Lines

You will need to know your property lines if you are planning to build an addition to your home, add a deck to the back, or if you want to do any major landscaping changes. Even if you want to build a fence, you will need to know your property lines. 

Knowing property lines is also important if you are buying or selling real estate. If you are the seller, you will need to let potential buyers know exactly what they are paying for. And if you are buying a property, you want to be sure of the boundaries of the property you make an offer on it. Your mortgage and title companies will likely require your property lines, too, as they prepare your paperwork. 

And lastly, knowing your property lines can help you avoid disputes with your neighbors. Having clearly defined boundaries makes it easier to know who is responsible for tree removal, for example. It will also help you avoid any issues of encroachment: when one neighbor builds something that sits on the other’s property. 

There are many reasons you might want (or need) to know property lines. Once you decide you want to know your property lines, the next step is to figure out how to find property lines.

4. Look at your property survey

The survey is a document with a rendering of the property lines and measurements, and should have been given to you when you bought your home. The distance from your house to the property line and the street should be shown on the survey. Use the measurements and details about surrounding landmarks to visually determine the property lines and avoid land disputes with neighbors.

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Visit the county recorder’s office or the assessor’s office. Ask what maps are available for public viewing that include your neighborhood and street. Request a copy of any maps that show clear dimensions of your property lines. Use the maps for reference when measuring your property’s total boundary line on each side.

How to Find Your Property Line in 5 Steps

To find your property line, follow these five steps.

  • Consult your deed for details of your property’s boundaries. 
  • Assess a plat map of the area to verify the deed’s information or find information not covered in older deeds. 
  • Look for natural, temporary, and permanent land markers at the edge of your property. 
  • If you cannot find any markers, hire a surveyor to look over your land. 
  • Update your personal records at the end of the process.

If you follow these steps, you should have an exact placement for your property lines. Finding your property line is actually relatively simple. Though the process will vary depending on your individual property’s size and location, and the state of your records, there are a few common things you can do to find your property line.

Step 1: Check Your Deed

Matt Benoit/Shutterstock

Matt Benoit/Shutterstock

A good place to start when looking for your property line is the deed to your land. As a binding legal document recording your holdings, a deed should list the exact boundaries of the property in some way. If it doesn’t, it will refer to a different document that does have those measurements.

If your deed does refer to a different document, it may be slightly out of date. So, it might describe landmarks that no longer exist. If this is the case, you’ll want to check a more up-to-date document.

Step 2: Look at Your Plat Map

Lisheng2121/Shutterstock

Lisheng2121/Shutterstock

A plat map, also called a property line map, describes the boundaries of different properties in a certain area while also offering topographical information like elevation, the presence of water, and other long-term structures. 

There are five different kinds of plat maps, but the ones you’ll need to find your property lines are subdivision and consolidation plat maps. These show the dividing of a single parcel, or property, into smaller pieces or the uniting of small parcels into larger land groups, respectively. You may also consult amending plats, which show small corrections that have been made.

They’re usually reasonably up-to-date, with some counties renewing them every year. This does change from county to county, though, so be sure to verify that you have the most recent map available to you.

You should have a copy of at least one of these maps in your records. If not, you can request them from your local assessor’s office. In some cases, you can even request them online. You can usually do this through your local government’s land records, building, or tax department.

Step 3: Look for Property Markers

J5M/Shutterstock

J5M/Shutterstock

As mentioned above, some properties have obvious landmarks such as streets or rivers as their limits. When this is not the case, surveyors will often leave behind artificial marks as a record of where your property ends. These come in two main forms.

The first kind of property marker is a temporary flag. These small, brightly colored flags are designed to be easily spotted and are usually quite fragile. They are only intended to mark off an area for a short time until a more permanent method is installed. If you’ve had a survey done recently, you may have flags.

The second kind is permanent markers. Though they can be made of wood or concrete, the most common property markers are metal stakes. These markers are thicker rods of steel or another durable metal that are driven into the ground and either completely buried or left with a small, colored cap sticking out of the ground. 

If you haven’t had a survey done recently, then these are the most likely markers to look for. Consider going to the likely edge of your property, as designated by your deed and plat map, and using a metal detector to find these markers. Dig down to verify the marker if you can’t see a cap.

Step 4: Get Your Land Surveyed

Sorn340 Studio Images/Shutterstock

Sorn340 Studio Images/Shutterstock

If you’re unable to find any property markers on your land’s edge, then it may be time to call in a new survey. This means contacting a land surveyor, either directly or through your mortgage or title company.

Licensed surveyors are trained to make exact measurements of your property using specialized equipment, basing their surveys on the existing legal information. These surveyors can either be government-sponsored or hired by real estate companies to assess properties prior to their sale.

Hiring a land surveyor can be relatively expensive. According to Home Advisor, the whole project will cost, on average, between $347 and $680, with higher prices for larger plots of land or more populous areas.

Remember to check that the surveyor you hire is licensed and experienced in working with properties in your area. This information should be freely available upon request, as all professional surveyors need to pass certain exams and be in good legal standing with your state’s professional board.

Step 5: Keep a Record

RobDun/Shutterstock

RobDun/Shutterstock

Once you’ve determined your property’s borders, be sure to request updated paperwork for your records. Get an updated survey results record, plat map, and deed – for which you’ll want to consult a legal professional to make sure it’s accurate.

Alongside your land records, you’ll want to keep a copy of your mortgage for the life of your ownership of the property. If you’ve just moved in, you should keep a copy of the closing agreement for at least a year after closing. These records can be physical or digital, and you should keep a backup as well.

You’ll also want to turn in those updated land records to your local government property agency so that they have them on file. You may also consider sharing the information you’ve found with your neighbors – especially the results of any surveys – so that they can have an up-to-date record of their property as well.

The Bottom Line

Knowing property lines is an important part of both buying a home and owning a home. When buying, property lines lay out in black and white what you’re buying. For homeowners, property lines let you know what you’re responsible for. If a tree falls across a property line after a storm, it’s important to know who’s liable for cleaning it up and covering damages.

If you’re looking to make home improvements, understanding your property lines also ensures you don’t build on your neighbor’s land by mistake.

Are you interested in taking on a landscaping or renovation project in the future? Make sure you know your property lines before getting started. Then, get preapproved for a cash-out refinance to fund your home improvements and create your dream home. 

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