What is a property survey?
Updated April 14, 2022
While it is not a legal requirement for buyers to commission a property survey, it is almost always an advisable step. A property survey helps buyers determine the exact location of property lines, as well as detailing encroachments, easements and hazard areas. While some property lines are clearly delineated by roads or landscape features, others may be invisible or have changed over time. A land survey is essential to gain a precise and detailed understanding of exactly what the property includes and to ensure that the buyer possesses an official document that can be produced in the event of a property sale or legal dispute.
Most property surveys are undertaken in four parts, beginning with research into the history of the deed to see where the property’s boundaries have been marked over time and a title search to determine clear ownership of the land. The surveyor will then visit the site to compare historic records and data with any existing markers and use surveying equipment to help sketch out a map of the land, including everything contained within the property boundaries.
A property survey helps buyers determine the exact location of their property lines. Credit: Abakumada/Pixabay
The surveyor will measure the land and determine the boundaries and corners, as well as providing a written description of the property, including the address and the location of adjacent properties. The findings of a property survey by a professional land surveyor are legally binding and can be referenced in case of a dispute in court.
What does a property survey include?
- A survey confirms the property’s legal description and includes an up-to-date map determining its legal boundaries.
- It allows buyers to know definitively where they can expand a property, construct new buildings or erect fencing, and what land falls under their responsibility.
- The survey will note any encroachments by neighbors who may have built something that invades the property’s boundaries.
- It will include details of any existing right-of-ways: paths that allow others to travel through the property to access another property or a public road.
- It will also include information about any easements. These are similar to right-of-ways but cover access rights by a specific party that needs to use the land, such as utility installation and maintenance workers, or areas that may be shared with neighbors, such as a road or beach.
- The survey should also mark any setbacks: the distance that must be maintained between the house and the property features around it, such as the road or other homes. This is often determined by city or county ordinances or a homeowners’ association.
- Any hazard areas that may pose potential problems in the event of new construction, such as a water table near the surface of the lot, land erosion or the potential for landslides, should also be noted in the survey.
- Buyers may also choose to commission a topographic survey, mapping elevation, to help architects and contractors carry out any new construction and to aid with establishing flood insurance premium rates.
Tips for buyers
Land surveyors keep copies of the surveys they complete. To save time and money, buyers thinking of purchasing a property that has been surveyed within the last five to 10 years may be able to contact the previous surveyor and pay for a copy of the existing survey, rather than commissioning a new one. If the last survey was carried out more than a decade previously, it may be outdated and a new one should be commissioned.
In the U.S., property surveys cost between $400 and $700 on average but prices depend on size, terrain and location. It is worth looking for a local surveyor who will be familiar with the area and charge a lower call-out fee.