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What Is a Survey, and Do I Need One?

We break down the vital role this process plays in your future home.

Written by Adam Headley
 Photo: Adobe ©Yuttana Studio
Among the numerous documents that certify real estate ownership, the survey holds a place of particular importance.  Its purpose is straightforward — to verify the location and the legal description of a tract of real estate as recited in the owner’s deed.
Those purchasing a home or tract of undeveloped property must recognize the possibility that the physical real estate may not match the language contained in the document that conveys ownership. So, the best way to ensure that the purchaser is getting what he/she pays for is to spend a few hundred dollars on a survey. 

If funds are being borrowed to conclude the purchase, then it’s likely the lending institution will require a loan survey for that purpose, as well as to document the location of the land that the title policy insures.  If no survey is obtained in a real estate transaction, a title policy is likely to exclude any claims that may arise in the future based on a subsequent survey or boundary discrepancy.
A loan survey typically describes the tract of land and then supplies a drawing that supports the findings of a licensed surveyor who has done due diligence, meaning researching the history of the property, visiting the location and performing basic field work by measuring and identifying particular landmarks or, possibly, metal pins located in the ground during an earlier survey.  It may include such unfamiliar phrases as, “From a pin located at X … to a point Y … and thence to a fence line.”  The drawing also will include the property lines and any rights of way that cross the property in question.  These rights of way are generally referred to as “easements” and most commonly record a utility company’s legal privilege to access the property to perform maintenance, repair or installation of water or power lines or other necessary infrastructure.
Different types of surveys are available depending on the reason for engaging the surveyor in the first place. For instance, real estate developers may need a survey to determine lot lines for a residential community.  Utility companies may need surveys to ascertain routes of access to power, water or gas lines.  Construction projects require surveys at various stages to verify that the footprint of a structure is appropriately located and the foundation is built in the proper place.  Depending on the situation at hand, types of surveys include boundary surveys, ALTA surveys, location surveys, topographic surveys, site-planning surveys and construction surveys.  The more complex the transaction, the more detailed the survey and the more cost involved – and to complicate matters just a bit, these may be known by other names depending on conventional dialogue in certain areas of the United States.
The process of closing a real estate purchase usually requires an ALTA (American Land Title Association) loan survey, which fulfills the organization’s basic requirements for a lending institution, title company and prospective purchaser to rely on its findings.  In this case, its purpose is to provide a detailed land parcel map and document the fact that little or nothing has changed since the last survey was done. Copies of earlier surveys are often recorded at the offices of local registers of deeds and are available as a matter of public record.
Property owners may need a survey to settle a boundary dispute with a neighbor or to verify that any improvements, such as fences, outbuildings or even the foundation of a home, are within the perimeter of the owner’s property.  Fences, driveways, mailboxes, landscaping and other improvements may encroach on adjoining property, and the final arbiter in such boundary disputes is, in fact, the survey.  Therefore, obtaining a survey at the time or purchase or to remove any doubt regarding property lines may well prevent a challenge when further improvements are made and avoid the potential costlier removal and/or relocation of those improvements to where they belong.
When prospective or current property owners have any questions regarding the findings of a survey or the need to engage a surveyor, the best advice is to consult a title company or real estate attorney for practical guidance.  Understanding the role of the survey is a vital component of real estate

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