Know Your Boundaries: The Importance of a Land Survey

When buying a home, the cost of a new survey is generally worth itDetermining the legal metes and bounds of a parcel of land will prevent future disappointments and property disputes. Property boundaries have been marked or described in various ways since ancient times. Although historical boundaries have often been perpetuated and historical land abstracts or legal descriptions make for interesting reading, it is the development of sophisticated surveying tools and GPS technology that has made modern surveys so technically correct and legally indisputable.

Legal Descriptions, Deeds and Surveys

Today, although a land survey may not be required, it is often wise to request one when buying a home, unless an existing survey shows and describes all improvements and easements, and there have been no previous issues. The legal right to ownership of a tract of land is conveyed by deed, commonly recorded with county or state authorities. The deed includes a description of the size and character of the land, and the survey represents a scaled depiction of the lot, its surrounding site, and the existing improvements.

Land grants and homestead tracts during early years of American expansion attempted to show location on master plats for each county, state and territory. But they were not always foolproof, and disputes sometimes led to bloodshed, if not all-out war. At times, even national boundaries were questioned.

Types of Surveys

The most comprehensive is the ALTA/ACSM (conforming to standards set by the American Land Title Association/American Congress of Surveying and Mapping) Survey. It describes all the features of a piece of land and many lenders request this type of survey. Professional surveyors use all available tools to assure that the property descriptions are accurate.

Additional survey types include:

  • Boundary Survey: Typically involves field work to set or verify the existence of permanent markers or monumentation (stakes driven into the ground with a numbered or otherwise identifiable cap) at each corner of the lot or land parcel. Corners are easily flagged for subsequent sales and transfers of deed, and such flagging is often requested in lieu of a new survey.
  • Location Survey: Sometimes referred to as an “as built” survey, this can be used by lenders and cities to verify that a home was sited and built according to approved plans. It is, in effect, an enhanced boundary survey.
  • Subdivision and Site Planning Surveys: Used by developers and/or by city planners for zoning purposes or to plan streets and highways, delineate commercial and industrial areas or designate open space. A city’s master plan often governs future developments but is generally subject to modification.
  • Topographic Survey: A “Topo” is helpful when planning buildings, driveways and preservation of natural terrain. It maps existing contours and slope, shows the location of existing trees and ditches, creeks, streams and drainage, and aids the work of engineers and landscape architects.

Survey Value

A legal survey represents one more assurance that property is as it is purported to be. The advantages of paying for an updated survey outweigh the risk of doing without one, especially when buying an older home, a property that has been extensively enlarged or remodeled, or a home on land that has been recently subdivided. Requirements vary from one state to another about who should bear the cost of a survey. Many allow buyers and sellers to negotiate payment or to split the cost at closing.

Today, surveying may be an exact science, but it was not always so. In the past, property boundaries—in Brooklyn Park or elsewhere—have been loosely defined, sometimes by rock cairns, fence lines, meandering creeks, ditches or even large trees. Even a discrepancy of a few inches can lead to major problems in case of a dispute with a neighbor over the location of a fence or a driveway.

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