A land survey is a vital component of land sales and development. Anytime you need to know the boundary lines of a piece of property or the type of features it has, a land survey can provide that information.
Land surveying has an ancient lineage, all the way to the Bible and further. It has been a vocation of several Founding Fathers of the United States. Owning property was once the only way to earn the right to vote. Today, people and municipalities are every bit as touchy about what’s theirs as ever, especially going about property lines.
Why would you need a land survey? Let us count the reasons.
What Is Land Surveying?
Measuring and mapping the land, sky, or sea is all surveying. Any environment can be surveyed for a variety of reasons. The primary activities of a land surveyor are to identify, verify, and document boundary lines for a property, either through exploration or for development.
A survey provides the information needed to comply with building codes and municipal plans as well as the proper placement of structures on a plot of land. Surveys include more than the surface as it is. They also contain information about overlays, protections, and topographic, aerial, nautical, or underground features.
A surveyor, someone who performs surveys, has access to an array of tools from GPS, theodolites, and scanners to create sophisticated land maps with definitive edges or borders. Surveyors provide data for developers, buyers, sellers, and even for accident scenes.
- A survey is not the same as an appraisal. Appraisals are for comparing properties in an area that have sold recently to determine property value.
- Surveys are not forever. Changes in properties bordering yours and whether or not the surveyor can maintain responsibility are two reasons for having a new survey performed.
- Not all survey descriptions are alike depending on whether the survey references sections, townships, or ranges, metes and bounds, or map, tracts, and plats.
Surveys are one of many legal documents you’ll deal with when buying, selling, developing, or exploring land.
Types of Surveys
Surveys come in many different varieties depending on the data needed.
- American Land and Title Association (ALTA) survey - often required by mortgage lenders and title companies, an ALTA survey maps property lines, improvements, easements, and land features affecting the property.
- Floodplain survey - performed on low lying land and shows the elevation. It indicates whether the property requires hazard insurance and is frequently required for land near creeks and rivers.
- Boundary survey - this identifies the real property lines and corners of a plot. It’s often used in disputes over boundaries or to properly situate improvements such as fences.
- Lot split survey - if a piece of land must be divided, this survey provides the legal definition for each separate parcel created. The survey shows the boundary lines for each new plot.
Other surveys may specialize in more esoteric areas. As a developer, landowner, buyer, or seller, these four surveys are the ones you will see most of the time.
Reasons for Performing a Survey
Now to get down to the why’s and wherefore’s of surveys.
To Determine Lot Dimensions and Identify Topography
Property is often sold by size. Large lots are offered in acres and homes are priced according to square footage. Beyond the need to know how the size of the property to compare rates, you also need the information for construction and development purposes. If you are building a custom home or setting up a manufacturing plant, the design needs to fit on the lot without encroaching on the neighbors or blocking easements.
The topography is another crucial piece of information to tell you what needs to be done to prepare the land for development and how to customize building plans to the existing area. Also, if you are purchasing rural property, the survey can tell you how much is pastureland, whether there is a water feature such as a pond or lake, how much is under cultivation, or how much of the property is forested.
To Obtain a Mortgage or Sell Land
Most of today’s land transactions require a survey, so both buyer and seller are aware of what exactly is being sold. You need to know whether the previous survey was correct and what the land may contain in the way of utility easements, rights-of-way, and general compliance to zoning.
A mortgage or title company wants to have the information as part of the due diligence and documentation of a land sale. They are protecting their own assets by ensuring everything is open and aboveboard. If you are the buyer, you want to know there’s no cheating going on. Sellers want to get top dollar for the property.
When Building or Renovating
The people or business next door won’t appreciate you taking a piece of their land for your building or expansion. Before you finalize building plans, you need to know the resulting structure will fit onto the property without going past any boundaries.
Home or building renovations involving expansion of the structure still need to fit onto the existing property. If you bought a house or building with the idea of adding to it in the future, a survey tells you what you have to work with and how to keep the neighbors happy.
Compliance with Zoning Laws and Building Codes
Most municipalities have different parts of the city zoned for different types of structures and activities. Lots may be zoned residential, industrial, retail, and more. Zoning laws and building codes not only say what can be done on a property, but they can also specify how large or small the structures can be, the type of structures allowed on the property, even the materials used to build it.
Zoning and building codes also contain information about rights-of-way for roads and utilities, the location and size of easements, and what must be set aside for other public or city use.
When Making Permanent Improvements
Besides renovations, surveys help you place permanent improvements such as fences, driveways, and outbuildings within the boundaries of your land without encroaching on the next property over. Even if all you do is plant a tree, you need to understand that any limb that grows over the property line is subject to the whims of the property owner next door.
Land surveys tell you the exact boundaries of your property and what features it has. It acts as a legal description of your land. They also assist municipalities, developers, and others in complying with local laws. Surveys were a big part of mapping our country.
Anytime you make changes to a piece of land, or if you are buying or selling, you need a land survey as the foundation for any project.