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What is a land survey and when might you need one?

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    If you’re buying a home on a large parcel of land, you probably want to know what you’re paying for. Land surveys legally document and help demystify the boundaries and physical features of a plot of land. There are several reasons you may want a deeper understanding of these features, from determining property value for your mortgage lender to assessing the land ahead of building a new construction. Let’s take a deeper dive into land surveying, how it works and why you may want to have it done.

    What is land surveying?

    Land surveying is the process of measuring, mapping and outlining the boundaries, topography and other physical features of a tract of land. Here are some reasons you may want to have your land surveyed:

    • Establishing a property’s legal boundaries: Understanding a property’s legal boundaries is helpful when it comes to neighborly and legal disputes and situations such as encroachments.
    • Applying for a mortgage: Some lenders will want you to have the land surveyed to make sure it’s true to its legal description (as found in the deed, title or previous mortgages and surveys) and value.
    • Installing utilities: A land survey may help you locate existing utility connections and septic systems or reveal where you may want to install new ones.
    • Subdividing property: If you’re planning on splitting up a piece of land into smaller parcels, a land survey helps make sure the new plots are compliant with zoning requirements.
    • Bringing an old survey up to date: Even a small change to your property could render an existing land survey obsolete. If any updates have been made to the property or if you're planning to make changes, you’ll likely want a new survey after the changes are complete.
    • Developing the land: If you’re planning on building anything on your land, you may want to have it surveyed. A land survey could uncover problems that may not be visible and would hinder your project if discovered after building begins.
    • Insurance requirements: Insurance providers generally require the legal documentation of a land survey before granting you a title insurance policy.

    How does a land survey work?

    While it may be possible to conduct a land survey yourself, it’s generally a good idea to turn to the professionals, especially if you’re surveying land for a legal purpose. Most states have their own association of licensed land surveyors with websites to help you find a qualified surveyor in your area. You can also do a web search of local land surveyors and choose based on reviews or rates. Once you’ve selected a surveyor, you may be wondering exactly what is included in a land survey or how to get land surveyed. A thorough land survey generally has three phases — research, fieldwork and drafting and computation. Here’s what to expect from each step in the process:

    1. Research: This is when the surveyors search for and pore through existing documents pertaining to the property in question. They’ll refer to previous surveys, deeds and historical records to cross-reference boundaries and other physical qualities. During this phase, the surveyor will also gain permission to go forward from the owners and public authorities. Additionally, the surveyor will gather necessary tools and materials and set control points and benchmarks for the survey, in the spirit of accuracy.
    2. Fieldwork: During the fieldwork phase, the surveyor will visit the land to collect key data. This usually involves a theodolite (which measures vertical and horizontal angles), GPS, 3D scanners and some more analog tools, like measuring tape. This is when boundaries are located and marked, topographical features are recorded and supporting notes, sketches and photos are taken.
    3. Drafting and computation: After the fieldwork has been completed, surveyors will typically get to work processing the data they’ve collected, cross-referencing it with their research and adjusting their measurements for the Earth’s curvature and their own tool calibration. Next, they’ll begin the work of mapping the land with the help of computer-aided design (CAD) software. What’s mapped will depend on the type of survey but will generally include boundaries and topographic features. Finally, the surveyor will create a thorough report, including a legal description of the land, the surveyor’s methods and any case-specific recommendations they have for the owner.

    Types of land surveys

    Most land surveys share a few common goals and methods, but they vary depending on the purpose. Here’s a rundown of some of the more common types of land surveys you may need or come across:

    • Boundary survey: This type of land survey cross-references historical records with field research to confirm the legal corners and boundaries of a piece of land.
    • American Land Title Association (ALTA) or mortgage survey: This is one of the most thorough types of land surveys. It’s used by mortgage lenders and insurance providers to painstakingly assess the condition and features of a property, from its boundaries to any easements and restrictions that may be present.
    • As-built survey: An as-built is a land survey that happens after the construction of a building or another developmental project. Also known as a post-construction survey, it documents the physical qualities, utilities and improvements of the new construction.
    • Topographic survey: Mostly involving fieldwork, these surveys document the land’s elevation, location, positioning, and features both natural and manmade, from creeks to paved walkways. These surveys are used when planning real estate and infrastructural developments and assessing environmental and geological risks.
    • Subdivision survey: This type of survey is done when a large parcel of land is being split into two or more smaller tracts. A subdivision survey is used when creating plats, which are detailed maps of the smaller parcels, their features and boundaries.
    • Monitoring survey: These surveys are used to monitor conditions like erosion, structural stability, water levels, vegetation growth, and geological risks and conditions.

    How much does a land survey cost?

    The cost of a land survey varies based on many factors: the scope of the survey, the size of the land, the surveyor you’ve hired, the terrain, your geographical location and any special services you may require from your surveyor. While the cost of surveying land could range between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, you’ll likely get the most accurate estimate by calling surveyors and explaining your project.

    In summary

    Land surveys provide owners and other relevant parties with thorough, precise and legal assessments of a property’s boundaries, shape, and manmade and topographical features. Though intimate knowledge of your property might be satisfying on its own, these surveys are crucial when trying to secure a mortgage and title insurance, developing and managing land, installing utilities and understanding any apparent property risks. A land survey's legal boundaries may be extra helpful in case of disputes with neighbors. Encroaching neighbors aside, land surveys give you the power of legal, definitive knowledge, and depending on your situation, there are many ways to use this information.

    Land survey FAQs

    1. How long is a land survey good for?

    Land surveys don’t have an expiration date, but when any changes are made to the land or property, the original survey becomes obsolete. If you’re selling or refinancing, an up-to-date survey may be required, so it may be helpful to have new surveys done every few years, depending on what you’ve done to — or plan to do with — your land.

    2. Is a land survey required for closing?

    Whether a land survey is needed for closing on a property depends on your local jurisdiction, your lender, buyer and seller requirements and the property type. This is on a case-by-case basis, so you may want to consult with a real estate expert to understand your exact requirements.

    3. Are land surveys public record?

    While many land surveys are private documents, there are some exceptions depending on your jurisdiction. Some government agencies make certain surveys accessible to the public, sometimes via an Internet database. Contact your local government to learn more about land surveys and privacy.

    4. How long does a land survey take?

    Depending on the project's scope, the size of the land and other factors such as weather, a land survey could take from a few hours to a few months.

    5. How do you get your land surveyed?

    If you’re looking to have your land surveyed, hiring a licensed professional is generally considered the most viable option. After requesting quotes and finding the right surveyor, you’ll agree on the scope of the work and the surveyor will begin researching and collecting necessary permits for the job. From there, they’ll execute the survey and create a survey report, which generally includes a map, legal description and any relevant recommendations.

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