A land survey is an important process for property owners, real estate buyers, landscapers, and developers. Land surveys reveal vital information about a piece of real property, such as its boundaries, physical features, potential encumbrances, easements, and mortgages.
The best way to ensure a land survey fulfills industry standards and requirements is through a professional surveyor. Not all surveys produce the necessary results – the most well-esteemed land surveys in the industry are those from the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) now part of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).
What's So Special About ALTA/ACSM Land Surveys?
In terms of land surveys, the ALTA land survey is the gold standard. A typical boundary survey, or a survey used to determine property lines, will fulfill the standards of your individual state. ALTA/ACSM surveys meet the highest standards recognized throughout the country. The purpose of these associations is to establish acceptable principles and expectations during land surveying in the U.S. ALTA/ACSM surveys provide a common standard for all parties in the transaction to follow – especially the professional land surveyors. These types of land surveys provide a wealth of information, including:
- Property boundaries
- Easement and encumbrances
- Evidence of use by other parties
- Names of neighboring property owners
- Land improvements
- Roads and property features
- Access and legal routes to the property
- Zoning classification
- Flood zone classification
- Water boundaries
- Existence of cemeteries
- Legal property description
A boundary survey will not reveal most of this information. Boundary surveys are not nearly as comprehensive as ALTA/ACSM surveys, and can fail to provide critical information. Getting anything less than the national standard for land surveys can lead to legal problems down the road, such as your neighbor alleging a boundary encroachment when you fence in your property. Play it safe during property transfers and land development by scheduling an ALTA/ACSM land survey before signing any legal documents.
The Process of an ALTA/ACSM Survey
An ALTA land survey aims to collect and record data from property records as well as physical surveying, to fulfill the needs of title companies during insurance dealings. There are many complex steps and processes required for an ALTA/ACSM survey. Knowing what to expect can help you during the process of land surveying. The first step in an ALTA survey is in-depth research into pubic and private land records. Next comes the field investigation. Searchers look for original survey markers and boundary lines. This process can be difficult and time-consuming, depending on the features of the land.
Once the surveyors find the field evidence they need, they begin an analysis. The final survey must include a number of details about the land, such as building locations, access points, possible encroachments, fences, bodies of water, utility features, parking spaces, etc.
The surveyor uses a vast array of modern tools to collect and record this information. The surveyor will then create a plat/map of the survey with detailed notes. The title company, lender, and buyer will then review the final ALTA/ACSM survey documents, make comments as necessary, and send the survey back to the professional surveyor for a final signature and seal.
When to Use an ALTA/ACSM Land Survey
Handling property matters comes with several different types of available surveys. A location survey identifies where property improvements are in relation to boundary lines. It requires a physical inspection of the property, and typically costs a few hundred dollars. A boundary survey identifies the property’s boundary lines.
The surveyor will complete this job by searching the public records, taking measurements, and creating a land plat, or map. Construction, development, and permits typically require boundary surveys. They can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the size of the property and complexity of records.
When it comes to commercial deals, an ALTA/ACSM is the standard requirement. These surveys are more expensive than the other types, but they reveal much more extensive information about real property. They can cost anywhere from $2,000 to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the circumstances. However, they are necessary to protect a real property investment.
Commercial closings require ALTA/ACSM surveys to safeguard major investments from claims – claims a simple title search may not disclose. The information gleaned from the ALTA/ACSM survey aids the parties involved in the evaluation of the land to discover the potential benefits and downfalls of ownership.
Need an ALTA/ACSM Survey? Here’s What to Do
If you find yourself in a position that requires the gold standard of land surveys, the ALTA/ACSM, you must file a request for the survey as the client. If you aren’t the client, arrange for the client to make the request. The person responsible for paying for the survey must submit a written authorization to the accredited surveying company.
The insurance company is not responsible for survey costs unless the insurer authorizes this specifically in writing. The request needs to specify that the client requires an “ALTA/ACSM” or “ALTA/NSPS” (National Society of Professional Surveyors) survey.
Prior to the start of the survey, all parties involved in the transaction or development need to decide on the scope of the survey. The insurer, client, and lender need to agree in writing to the details of the survey before beginning the process. Once all parties sign off on the land survey, the professionals will begin according to the ALTA/ACSM standards of care and practice.
The research, fieldwork, measurements, and documentation can take weeks or months depending on the complexity of the property and its records. Upon completion of the final survey, interested parties are free to buy, sell, transfer, alter, or develop the real property without worrying about easements, encroachments, and other potential problems.
The ALTA/ACSM land survey is the top choice for commercial projects and for those who want the most comprehensive survey available. These surveys abide by high federal standards in terms of research and plat development. There will be no question of hidden property features or defects with an ALTA/ACSM survey. While these surveys are more expensive than boundary or location surveys, they are worth the cost during commercial ventures where a property defect could derail the entire project. For in-depth research and stringent quality standards, go with the ALTA/ACSM land survey.