Why a property survey is so critical!

By | February 5, 2013


Why having a survey to the property that you own or may be thinking of buying is so critical!

This is a great article to share with clients or with any individual with an interest in real estate.

‘Setting Boundaries With a Land Survey’

Setting Boundaries: Why a Survey of Your Property is One of the Most Important Pieces of Paper You Should Own

Planning on renovating or adding on? Buying a new property? Hiring a surveyor to create an accurate and complete record of your property can be an essential investment. An accurate and complete survey can save you time, money and a wheelbarrow of grief.

A survey could be the most important piece of paper you may ever own. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration—the deed to your house, passport, driver’s license, marriage certificate—these are all important, but a survey of your property? If you are developing your property, an inaccurate or incomplete survey can cause project delays
and create costly and unwanted surprises.

Think you know where your property line is? Are you sure? A proper survey will show which side of the property line that neighbor’s fence is on, who’s tree it really is, and document easements that can affect your ability to develop your property. An accurate survey will allow you to calculate the area of your lot, which can affect the size of additions and new construction that you may engage in.

All in the details

You may already have what is known as a “plot plan” of your property. This is not the same as a survey. A plot plan typically shows the footprint of the house and its location on the site and often not much else. A survey is far more detailed and contains elements essential to getting through the zoning permit process, usually the first step in a construction project.

A complete survey will show measured property lines (expressed in “metes and bounds”), significant topography, easements, site utilities, additional structures such as garages and sheds, wells, septic fields, stone walls, large trees, and landscape elements such as rock outcroppings.  This requires not only careful study of the property directly at the site, but research into town records to make sure nothing is overlooked, especially elements such as wetlands and easements.

A proper survey can save you time and money

Inaccuracies and missing information can lead to unwanted delays in the design and permitting process.  The zoning approval process is a critical element in a project schedule—having a design rejected because of incomplete site information can add weeks or months to a project.

They can also lead to the need for costly changes in the design. Adam Hoffman of Godfrey-Hoffman & Hodge in North Haven relates the following story illustrating the consequences of a poorly executed survey:

“The original surveyor did an incomplete recording the topography of the site. The house was built and the driveway as designed was found to be much steeper than the code allowed.  In addition, the surveyor neglected to include space for a 4% maximum grade at the garage to prevent cars from “bottoming out.”  Since the house was already constructed, the owner had no choice but to install a serpentine driveway that took up a large and unsightly portion of the front yard.  Could the owner have sued the surveyor?  Yes, but the original surveyor had no insurance.  The owner’s chances of recouping anything were slim and he was left with an unattractive and devalued property.”

In another example Hoffman cites, an inaccurate survey was used to build a house.  It was later found that the property lines were placed incorrectly and a corner of the site was located in the middle of a public roadway.  The owner wanted to take out a mortgage on his property but no bank would accept him as a result.  The owner had the option to wait for 3 years for the boundary lines to qualify as “pre-existing non-conforming” (something usually applicable to older properties), but the long wait wouldn’t guarantee he could still obtain favorable mortgage rates.

“As an architect, I have dealt with homeowners reluctant to spend the money on a survey. One property owner wanted to build a house in the middle of a large piece of land, far from any setbacks.  As a result, he was convinced he could do without a survey until it was time to submit plans for permit. Without a drawing showing the topography of the area for the new house however, we were unable to do more than guess at the relationships of the grade levels to the first floor and walk-out basement. We didn’t obtain accurate topographic information until further down the line, which led to time-consuming changes in the drawings, adding delay to the project. In addition, only by precisely locating the new house in relation to the road were we able to obtain accurate pricing from contractors for the cost of the new driveway.”

A Good Surveyor is Thorough

Some surveyors depend on real estate attorneys to provide title information.  Hoffman tells another story about a major retailer that wanted to build a new store.  When he went to stake out the site, he walked the property and noticed a well-used path traversing the property. This path was not shown on any drawing on file.  Under many local laws, such paths, if old enough can fall under “adverse possession” and disallow development of the site. Wanting to avoid delays and legal fees, the retailer is looking for another location.

On another commercial project, during a thorough title search, Hoffman discovered a previously unnoticed easement in the location for a new addition. The owner had several options: negotiate for the revision of the easement or submit the project to a redesign. Either way, money and time will need to be spent to rectify the situation.

How to Find a Great Surveyor?  

Architects, real estate attorneys, realtors, all can be good resources.  Check with the BBB to check for any complaints.  Ask for references.  Find a well-established firm that isn’t likely to go out of business.  Verify that they have insurance.  Most importantly: don’t necessarily go with the cheapest option.  A proper survey takes time and expertise.

Your property is your investment.  A proper survey is one of the most valuable tools you can have when it comes time to build, add-on or renovate.


9 thoughts on “Why a property survey is so critical!

  1. Bruce E. Ritter, Esq.

    Excellent Article, Michael. Another cost savings aspect of procuring a proper and accurate survey is in line to avoid significant costs incurred in boundary disputes. The legal costs alone (not to mention the cost to remove improvements, landscaping or the like) should be strong motivation to establish the property boundaries by long standing reliable methods of a quality survey.

  2. piedmonthudsonJohn Lounsbury

    To say nothing of the trouble to be avoided when someone may want to cut down a tree. The property shown in the picture has some similarities to one I formerly owned in upstate New York. Knowing the property lines was of great value when cutting firewood. And kept me on speaking terms with my neighbors, as well.

    Robert Frost had it right (Mending Wall).

  3. M Reilly

    Don’t forget that a Seller may have added improvements without the benefit of obtaining a permit for them, usually accessory structures and the like. A current or updated survey will certainly make any of these obvious, and avoid Buyer headaches in the future. I have seen too many Buyers proceed without an updated survey, only to have several legalization issues arise when all they want to do is add some living space for their growing family. Municipalities see all these Legalization’s as a revenue generator, and jump at the opportunity to add to their dwindling coffers by requiring that permits and CO’s be obtained. This is always at the expense of the current Owner, who often hasn’t planned for the added cost.

  4. Rosie Beckett

    My husband and I Dare planning to buy a home soon and we are thinking about getting a land survey done of the home before we put an offer in, but we don’t know much about these surveys. you make ag great point that a complete survey will show exactly where the property lines are as well as landscape elements like large trees or rock outcroppings. Because the property that we want to buy has a 1-acre backyard it would be great to look at this survey to help us determine how we want to landscape and garden in our backyard.

  5. Ridley Fitzgerald

    You’ve got great information about land surveys here. I love how you said that these surveys are really detailed and can help you through the zoning process. We’ll have to get one of those for the property we want to buy for our home.

  6. Daphne Gilpin

    Thanks for explaining that having a property survey provides accurate topographic information, which is needed to prevent the need for time-consuming changes. My husband and I really like the idea of having a custom home built, so I’ve been doing research about the steps we need to take to get started. I’m glad I read your article because now I can see why getting land survey done is something we need to prioritize early on!

  7. Thomas Westgren

    It makes a lot of sense how you said that a building survey is essential to ensure that you don’t have to end up waiting 3 years for your property to be accepted like it should. Hiring a good and professional surveyor to take care of things for you seems like a great option. That way you can avoid mistakes that could make it harder to buy your home or building.


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