What Is a Property Survey and Where Can I Get One?

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

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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.

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Where do I find my propertys survey?

If you’re buying a home, ask the seller to check with their lender and/or title company to see if there’s a property survey on file. The local tax assessor’s office may also have one.

If you’re already a homeowner and a survey was never provided to you, your local property records or engineering department may have one on file. But even if they do, it could be outdated. While such dated surveys are typically accurate on standard city lots, they can be wrong if you live on a former country parcel that’s been altered for suburban development. You might also try checking with neighbors to see where they got theirs.

Request Land Records and Maps

To request maps, deeds, and/or patents, please fill out as much of the following information as possible and submit your request to the OGS Bureau of Land Management at [email protected]  or 518-474-2195: Please note:  This office maintains survey maps for state-owned lands and does not file individual survey maps or provide land surveying services for private property.  Please contact the county clerk for recorded survey maps or a local surveyor for land surveying services. What is your name and the person or company that you are representing? What is your contact information (phone number, address, email address)? What is your preferred method of contact? What county or counties is the request located in? What municipality or municipalities is the request located in (ex. town, village, city, and/or hamlet)? What tax map parcel or parcels does the requested cover (ex. 123.45-1-2.3)? What is the physical address of the request (ex. 123 Main Street)? What you are requesting (ex. map, deed, and/or patent)? What additional information or details do you have about the request?

Preparing for the Search

There are even better information sources than you

There are even better information sources than your deed. The best (and sometimes most elusive) document you can lay your hands on is the surveyor’s map, or plat. The plat translates that legal confusion of numbers and terms on the deed into pictures. It may also show references to natural landmarks, or triangulation data which may locate a particular point.

Plat-chasing is a major pastime among surveyors. Your plat, if one exists, may accompany your deed. Or it may languish in city or county records (clerks’ or surveyors’ offices would be the best places to search) or reside with a previous owner. Plats of neighboring land are helpful, too. They may show the location of a common boundary.

If you live in a subdivision or built-up area, you may be wondering why your deed’s legal description reads only “Lot 22, Rock Creek Estates” or “Tract A, First Addition.” But these, too, are metes and bounds surveys. The surveyors created several lots at once, so they drew one map of the whole thing. Deed descriptions merely refer to the master plat, which you will find in the public records.

You should also keep an eye peeled for early versions of your property description, surveyor’s notes, and descriptions of roads that border your land. Why? First, to ensure that your deed doesn’t contain mistakes; second, to find out all you can about boundary markers — the key to property lines.

You are now nearly ready to step into the surveyor’s shoes. First, though, you’ll have to gather your equipment. You’ll need a compass, long measuring tape, plumb bob, level, hatchet, some ribbon, and stakes. You’ll also need a willing assistant. Now check your instruments. Do they read in the same numbers as the survey? If not, you will have to translate.

Most people will have on hand the type of compass that uses the directional measurement known as azimuth. Being ornery as a rule, surveyors use another system, called bearings. To learn how to translate one to the other, see the end of the article section “Converting Azimuths to Bearings.”

On to distances. We measure lengths in feet and inches, don’t we? Well, the surveyor uses either feet and tenths of a foot (be very alert for this!) or a venerable system called chains. Don’t panic at this. A chain measures 66 feet. Why 66 feet? Because it’s convenient for land computations. Ten square chains equal one acre — which means to compute acreage rapidly, all you have to do is find the number of square chains, then move the decimal point once to the left. Also, one mile stretches exactly 80 chains.

A hundredth of a chain — about eight inches — is called a link. Old-timers also used a quarter-chain measure (16-1/2 feet), calling it a rod, pole, or perch.

I find that if I’m faced with a description written in bearings and chains when my equipment reads in azimuths and feet, my brain reels at the prospect of translating and tramping about at the same time. It’s far better to translate all the degrees and distances on paper before you set out.

The Home Property Survey: Know Your Land

So what have you accomplished? A lot. If you found some corners, you may have staved of a boundary war with your neighbor. Show him or her what you’ve found, so you’ll agree. Then paint a few trees or pile rocks around the spot so it doesn’t go to weeds. Don’t force your grandkids to go through the same search.

Even if you didn’t turn up any corners, your time hasn’t been wasted. You’ve probably dug up some useful old records, and that’s half of what you’d pay a real surveyor for.

How Much Does A Property Survey Cost?

On average, new homeowners can expect to pay $400 – $700 for a professional property survey. However, the cost of a property survey depends on several factors, such as property size, terrain and location. For example, if you want to survey a wooded area, you’ll end up paying more than if you were to survey a flat, relatively empty piece of land.

Professional surveyors also charge for the time it costs them to do research on your property. A well-documented plot of land will take less time to research and cost less money to survey. It also pays to go local, since travel time is also included in the final price.

Basically, the easier the land is to survey, the less you’re going to pay.

Bring in a Professional Surveyor

Before you drive yourself too crazy with the metes and bounds survey, know that the only legally binding method to determine exact property lines—essential, for example, if you intend to build an addition to your house—is to have a professional survey. Local building codes will determine how close to your property line you can legally build. A professional survey could cost from a few hundred to more than a thousand dollars, depending on the size of your property and the complexity of the survey. Costly, perhaps, but adding to your dream house while keeping in your neighbors’ good graces is priceless.

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RELATED: How Much Does a Land Survey Cost?

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How to Find Property Lines for Free

Homeowner’s Deed

A homeowner’s deed should include a legal description of the plot of land, including its measurements, shape, block and lot number, and other identifiers such as landmarks and geographical features. If the language is tricky, reach out to your real estate lawyer or agent for help in deciphering it.

A Tape Measure

If you want to visually confirm your property lines, you can use a tape measure to determine the boundaries. From a known point detailed in the deed’s description, measure to the property’s edge and place a stake at that point as a marker.

After all the edges have been determined, measure the distance between the stakes. Compare the results to make sure they match the corresponding deed or plat.

Existing Property Survey from Mortgage or Title Company

Most mortgage lenders require prospective homeowners to have a current survey, and your title insurance also depends on it. If you bought your home recently but don’t have the survey, contact either company to see if they have a copy on file.

Existing Property Survey from County or Local Municipality

A property’s history and legalrecords are generally kept in the municipality or county’s tax assessor’s office or in its land records or building department. You can usually begin your search by going online to access the relevant property records. Most municipalities offer this information for free, but some offices may require a small fee or ask that you access the records in person.

Buried Pins

At the corners of your property, you may be able to find steel bars that have been buried, sometimes still visible, with a marked cap on the top end. These were likely placed on your land when a survey was completed. If you can’t readily see the pins (they may have been buried over time), use a metal detector to help you locate them.

While this isn’t a legally binding way to determine your property lines, it will give you a good idea of the boundaries. Warning: Before you start digging, call 811, the national call-before-you-dig hotline, to request the location of buried utilities you don’t want to inadvertently dig into an underground utility line.

Use an App

Download an app like LandGlide that uses GPS to determine a parcel’s property lines. LandGlide is free for the first seven days.

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Contact your loan officer to find out if he has access the property’s survey. The mortgage lender might have a copy of the property survey, because it also holds the title.

How do I hire a property surveyor?

Searching online for property surveyors in your area is one of the best ways to find companies to get the job done. “There is a surveying society in each of the 50 states, all of which are affiliated with NSPS,” Sumner says. “Each of those societies has a website, which will typically include a ‘Find A Surveyor’ section.”

It can be more cost-effective to work with the previous surveyor on the property, if possible, because that surveyor will have maps and records already on hand. If you can’t locate the prior surveyor, try the surveyors who assessed the properties next door. Don’t be afraid to ask your title company or lender for recommendations, too.

Sumner advises checking to make sure a surveyor is licensed to practice in the state where the property is located. You should also take the time to question your potential surveyor. Talk about your needs beforehand to make sure they can fulfill the requirements.

How long will the process take?

Sumner says there’s no way to determine exactly how long it’ll take to complete a property survey since there are so many variables to consider, including the quality and availability of property records, such as deeds.

They can usually be done within a week, says Wooll. But it could take up to three or more, depending on the company and their current backlog. As is true of so many tradespeople at the moment, demand is high, so wait times can be longer than what they were before the pandemic.

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