Survey Nightmare: The Dreaded “Wide Open Field Behind Us”

Your buyers walk out onto the back patio and instantly fall in LOVE with the HUGE back yard! There’s nothing but woods and lots of vacant, wide open space – which is going to be great for their young kids. Lots of space for a swing set, a swimming pool, a fire pit, maybe even that outdoor kitchen they have always dreamed of… the options are endless!

Then you crush their dreams by saying: “We won’t know for sure just how much of this land is yours until we get a boundary survey”. They look at you like you have lobsters coming out of your ears… thinking to themselves “of course we would own that; the mow lines match the rest of the yard and there’s a planter box garden in the back that is obviously ours”.

You, however, have seen this scenario before. You’ve represented other buyers who thought the same thing – only to be greatly disappointed when the boundary survey results came back and it turns out they owned much less than what they thought.

This can be a “Survey Nightmare” situation. But there are some simple solutions:

Insurance for Land Surveyors

We’re all human. We all have the ability to make errors, mistakes, and miscalculations. So what happens when we make mistakes? Who ends up paying? Is it ultimately the client, the surveyor…or hopefully someone else? Hopefully the land surveyor that you trust your clients to carries insurance. There are several key policies that land surveyors carry and they include the following:

  • E & O – Errors and Omissions. Land Surveyors carry this policy which covers errors specifically caused due to our human error. If property corners are incorrectly set, if drawings are incorrectly made then this policy would cover those inaccuracies.

  • General Liability. In the event that a crew member gets hurt while on a property performing a boundary survey this insurance policy would cover any claim.

Location Doesn’t Determine Ownership

If you park your car in my driveway, does that make it my car? If you had a Jaguar, BMW, or Mercedes I’d be only too happy to take them off your hands (assuming they are paid for). But you know as well as I do, that just because it’s on my property, it doesn’t make it mine. Same goes with property ownership. These are some of the most common things located on properties that implies ownership:

  • Fences. Fences to not create property lines. Survey monuments help to establish property lines. Rarely are fences built “on the property line”. Keep this in mind when looking at a fence and having the thought “this is where I own to”.

Assessor Data Isn’t 100% Reliable

The internet has made our lives so much easier. No more going to the courthouse to pull tax records – we can look that information up online!While it’s great to have that information, it can become information overload at our fingertips, which ultimately can be deceiving and misleading. For example, the assessors website offers an array of data including many of the following items:

  • Lot size. BEWARE on this one! I had a client who thought they were purchasing 4 acres (which is what the assessor said), but in all actuality, once it was surveyed, turns out that the lot was only 2.5 acres. New owners are now in litigation with the sellers over the value and size of the land.

What is A Legal Description?

A legal description, also known as a property description, describes a tract of land. This description provides information that a surveyor can use to identify an area of land on the ground. It is the written word that conveys the location of a piece of property. Legal descriptions can be written in several ways, including:

  • Recorded lot in a subdivision. – This type of description is more common in urban settings. A typical description would reference a lot number, a block number, a subdivision name, and the recording information for the subdivision plat at the Recorder of Deeds. These types of descriptions typically make survey research much easier to complete as the adjoining properties are also shown on the same recorded plat. For example; Lot 28 of Country Knoll Estates according to the plat thereof recorded in Plat Book 324 Page 45 in the St. Louis County Recorder’s Office, State of Missouri.

Who says I have to have an easement on my property?

In current times, when a developer purchases a large tract of land to subdivide into smaller lots, they typically have to have approval by the county or municipality in which the property is located to divide the tract. Each of those jurisdictions have their own “rules” or ordinances on the requirements for subdividing land.

Some of the most common requirements include the following:

  • Easements – These are areas typically designated on each lot where the utility companies are given permission to use a portion of the lot to place utility lines. Easements can be located along the front, back and/or sides of each property. Sizes vary as determined by the ordinances.
  • Building lines – These are “invisible” lines on each lot that limit where you are allowed to build your home. They put limits on how close to the street you can build, along with how far to the left or right you place the home. Many jurisdictions also have a rear yard setback requirement.
  • Covenants and Restrictions – Typically each subdivision has its own set of “rules” for the homeowners. The rules are based off of the current ordinances, but can include non-regulated items such as the type of fencing that can be installed, the parking of recreational vehicles and more. A copy of these can be obtained by your title company or from the Recorder of Deeds office.

What Is An Encroachment?

The term encroach is a legal term meaning to trespass upon the property, domain or rights of another. Because it is a legal term, and surveyors are not attorneys, it is not a term that surveyors should use. Our “job” is to advise you of the location of items, not to make judgements about those items.

Surveyors use other terms to describe the condition of property :

  • Overlap – this occurs when properties or items in question extend over or cover a part of another property.

Someone Surveyed My House a Few Years Ago - Why Won’t the Title Company Let Us Use It?

When a survey is completed as a part of a real estate transaction, the surveyor references items shown in the title commitment for that particular purchase. There are several reasons why a title company many not allow you to use an existing survey drawing.

Here are some of the most common reasons why:

  • The company who performed the survey is no longer in business. Most title companies will require that the company that performed the work is still in business. It gives the title company peace of mind that the product is still “good” and that any potential issues can be made to the surveying company who performed the work.

  • The survey is “old”. Many title companies will allow you to use a survey that is up to 10 years old, but that varies. I know of title companies who say seven years, three years, and one who even says six months. The fear is that the information is out of date and no longer accurate.

Why can’t you survey only one side of the property?

Have you ever done a puzzle? Where did you start – with the edge pieces or with the middle?

If you’re like the majority of people, you always start with the edges. Surveying is similar in practice in that in order to know how the middle piece of the puzzle fits, you have to know where all the outside pieces go first. Otherwise, the results are an incomplete land survey.

We can’t survey just one line for many reasons:

What does a property corner look like?

When a boundary survey is performed by a licensed land surveyor, part of the surveying process is to find, locate, expose, and set property corners. There are several different types of survey monuments that adhere to state statute requirements. Let’s take a look at the most common ones:

  • Rebar – According to statute, this must be a minimum of 18” in length and ½” in diameter. It is a solid iron rod that is typically placed flush with the ground. When a survey monument is set by a surveyor, it must have a cap placed on the rebar which has the company name and license number stamped into it. Common colors of the caps are pink, orange and yellow.
  • Iron pipes – According to statutes this monument must be a minimum of 18” in length with a ¾” outside diameter. These monuments typically have a plastic cap set inside of the pipe with the same characteristics as mentioned for a rebar.
  • Cut crosses –This one is a little tricky. If the cross is set at the centerline of the street or located on a curb, there is a high probability that this is NOT an actual property corner. It is most likely a point on the projection of the property line. Crosses are typically etched into the concrete.
  • Cotton Spindle – This is a 6”- 8” spindle from a cotton picking machine. Farmers sell “worn out” spindles to surveyors, who use them to monument property corners that fall into asphalt, tree roots, etc. The spindle has a sharp tip that allows it to be set where a traditional survey monument, such as a rebar, cannot be set.

Pros & Cons of a Boundary (aka “stake survey”)

There are 2 choices when considering having a survey performed. You can either get a complete Boundary Survey, or a Surveyors Real Property Report. Let’s look at the Pros and Cons of the Boundary Survey:

What is the purpose of a Boundary Survey?

A boundary survey is one of the most comprehensive types of surveys available when you are wanting to know information regarding your property. The boundary survey has many purposes. Here are the most commonly used:

1. Identify and locate your property corners. Property corners can then be used to identify and establish the location of your property line.

Pros and Cons of a SRPR (aka “spot”)

There are two main choices when considering having a survey performed. You can either get a boundary survey or you can get a Surveyors Real Property Report (SRPR). Let’s look at some of the Pros and Cons of the SRPR:

Pros:

  • Less expensive – SRPRs typically start around $175-$200 for a standard size lot, versus the boundary, which typically starts around $400-$500.
  • Gives a general idea of property/house location – You will be able to verify that the house that you think you are buying is really on the lot that you are buying.
  • Shows recorded easements on the drawing – Those easements that are listed and shown in the title commitment and on the subdivision plat will be shown on your SRPR drawing.
  • Quick turnaround time – When you’re in a pinch, a SRPR can typically be done within 24 hours, although standard notice time to complete a survey is 5 business days.

Why a “Spot” Isn’t Really a “Survey”

For a long time, the real estate industry has referenced a product by the name of “spot survey”. I hate to be the bearer of bad news – but it’s actually illegal in the state of Missouri to call a “spot” a “survey” (MO 20 CSR 2030.19.010.5). The legal name of the product is: Surveyors Real Property Report. In my opinion, the SRPR has two main functions:

  • Prove there is a house on the lot. Yes, it sounds absurd that a house be built on the wrong lot, but it does happen. A SRPR is a cursory check of the property and the main thing we want to verify is that the home is indeed located on the right lot!

Why Do I Have Survey Exceptions on my Title Policy?

The title policy’s purpose is to advise you of all the conditions of the property. Not just what you see physically when you go to the property, but all of those items that are recorded at the court house that could affect your ability to purchase the property “free and clear” of any defects. If a boundary survey is performed on a property, the title company will review the survey and may exclude certain conditions of the property from insurance coverage.

Some of the most common items include:

  • Fences. This is probably the #1 headache for all surveyors and title companies. There is a false sense of ownership when someone sees a fence. It is assumed that the fence is “built on the property line”, but rarely is that the case. Fences can be built way inside of property lines or built way over the property line onto the neighbors property. If they are built in the wrong place, chances are the title company is not going to insure their location. This means if the neighbor comes and tells you to move your fence onto your own property, the title company is not going to pay for the fence to be moved. That will be your expense since they put an exception on the title insurance policy.

Why Does the Survey Company Need a Copy of My Title Commitment?

A title commitment is the document that a title insurer prepares which shows all of the liens, defects, burdens and obligations that a piece of property and its buyers and sellers have. A survey company reviews this document and uses several portions of the document to perform a survey. Here are the sections we utilize the most:

Schedule A.

  • Provides buyer and sellers names – knowing who currently owns the property can aide in the deed research that might be performed by the surveying company.
  • Provides the legal description – this is also commonly known as the property description. Typically a Lot number and Subdivision name are located and referenced in a plat book and page that can be found at the Recorder of Deeds. This is the basis of the survey and is a key component to performing a survey.

Why Would I Get A Topographical Survey?

A topographical survey shows a 3-D depiction of land on a 2-D product. There are many reasons as to why this information can assist a property owner. Here are a few of the main reasons:

  1. To build on. If you have a vacant piece of property, the topographic survey can show you the contours, or the lay of the land, regarding elevation change on the lot. You can use the data to see where that home with a walk out basement would make the most logical sense.

  2. You’re having erosion problems. Because the topographical survey drawing can show contours, it can show where the swells and valleys exist on land. That data can be used by an engineer to calculate water flow and direction. They can recommend solutions, such as tile drain, to help eliminate erosion problems.

  3. Meet zoning requirements. There are counties and municipalities that require “tree preservation plans”. Those plans call for a minimal disturbance of the vegetation on a lot, and if vegetation is disturbed, you must meet criteria to “replace” those trees/shrubs that are removed. A topographic survey can show how much vegetation and where the vegetation is located on a lot.

What is a Topographic Survey?

We live in a 3 dimensional world. Yet when a property survey is made, the results are shown via a 2 dimensional product - good ole paper and ink.

A Topographical Survey is a 2-D representation of what is happening in the real world (3-D). The characteristics of a topographical survey can vary, but some of the most common elements include:

  • Contours. A contour line shows the peaks and the valleys of the land. For example, if there is a significant slope on a property, contour lines can be shown on the drawing to represent every time there is a drop of 5 vertical feet. A drop of 3 feet, 2 feet or even 1 foot can be shown as well, it is all based on the data that the land surveyor obtains while at the project. The smaller the cumulative drop, the more detailed the survey becomes.
  • Vegetation and physical attributes. If there is a stream or creek, or an easily identified wooded area, those attributes are identified by the land surveyor and data regarding the location of those attributes is obtained. The surveyor can locate individual trees and bushes, the outer perimeter of a "brushy" area, and more info at the request of the client.
  • Utilities. Any visible improvement on the lot can be identified and shown on the topographical survey. Overhead utility lines, street lights, electric boxes, pipeline markers and any visible evidence can be shown on the drawing. Items that are buried or located underground can be marked by companies such as DigRite. The surveyor can then show those markings on the drawing.

Why Are My Lender and Title Company Saying I need a Survey?

We live in a perfect world, where no one makes mistakes… right? People don’t build houses or garages on the wrong lot, and always build the fence on their own property. If that were the case, professional land surveyors and attorneys wouldn’t be needed near as much. Unfortunately, these things do happen, and probably more frequently than you think. Here’s what the lender and title company are looking for:

  1.  Are all the improvements on the right lot?
    Their main concern is to make sure that the home, detached garage, and even sheds are built onto the lot that you are purchasing. Otherwise, the lender risks investing in a property that’s not worth what they are loaning on. Plus, there could be huge legal fees to get something like this resolved.
  2.  Are the fences on the right property?
    If you have fenced in 5’ of your neighbor’s property, that could be a problem. Or what if the neighbor has a sprinkler line located 2’ onto your property. If that line gets damaged, is it your responsibility to repair the system since it’s on your property, or is it their responsibility because they own it?
  3.  Where are the easements?
    The land survey drawing will graphically show the location of the easements that are on record and referenced in the title commitment. The lender and title company want to make sure there are no easements running through the middle of the house or through any of the other improvements on the lot that could be a potential risk to you or them in the future.

What Is the Purpose Of A Boundary Survey?

The purpose of a boundary survey is to mark and identify where your property corners are located. Simply put, it shows you where your property begins and ends. When a boundary survey is completed by a professional land surveyor, a drawing is generated to show the results. Here are some of the most common elements shown on the drawing:

  • Lot dimensions. The property dimensions of a property are obtained from recorded deeds, subdivision plats and survey drawings. They identify the length of the property lines, bearings of the property lines and angular distances between property lines.

  • Improvements. One option of a boundary survey is to have the improvements shown on the drawing. Improvements would include houses, sheds, garages, inground pools and other permanent objects on the property. Because it is optional to have the improvements shown, be sure to communicate this with the land surveyor and what you want shown on the drawing.

  • Fences. Fences are typically indicators that imply “I own this land because my fence is built on it”. Rarely are fences built right on the property line. Fences are not a good indicator of what land you actually own. The location of anything close to the property line such as fences, retaining walls or landscaping can be shown on the drawing. Just like improvements, these are optional items that can be shown on the drawing.

  • Easements. Most subdivision plats show easements and building lines on them. Those items are typically shown on the boundary survey drawing. Additional easements may exist on a property. Those easements are commonly listed in the title commitment that was issued when you purchased the property. If a copy of the title commitment is provided to the land surveyor, those additional easements can be shown on the drawing as well.

How Much Does A Boundary Survey Cost

See Also: Boundary Survey Process and Considerations 


The property boundary survey and “stake” survey are one and the same. The term “boundary” is the legal term to identify that the boundaries of a property will be marked by locating the property corners. The term “stake” is the layman’s term. Typically there are “stakes” put at the property corners but, they are the exact same thing. There are many factors that can contribute to the cost of a boundary survey. Some of the most common are as follows:

Adverse Posession - Do you know what you own?

The first step to take is to have a boundary survey (aka stake survey) performed on your property. By having a boundary performed, property corners will be clearly and visibly marked for all parties to see. 

If the neighbor disagrees with the property corner location, they would be best advised to hire a different surveying company to verify the results

Do you have a claim for adverse possession?

As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary is a method of acquiring title to real property by possession for a statutory period under certain conditions, especially a non-permissive use of the land:

  • Can only be determined by a judge/court
  • Has to meet a minimum set of 5 requirements in order to qualify:
    • ACTUAL POSSESSION - Erecting a fence, planting a hedge
    • OPEN AND NOTORIOUS POSSESSION - Acts of possession, construction of buildings, visible use and occupation, a mailbox
    • CONTINUOUS POSSESSION - Uninterrupted use of land – can be from grantor to grantee
    • HOSTILE POSSESSION - If a fence extends to enclose lands belonging to another is believed to be the true boundary line, and one claims ownership to the fence, such possession will be adverse and hostile to owner.
    • EXCLUSIVE POSSESSION - Refusal to permit the legal owners or his or her agents to enter the land.

How do I find my own yard? 

It seems like a simple question, but do you really know the answer? Where is your yard? What do you really own? Do you own everything inside your fence or everything outside of your neighbor’s fence? Do you own up to where you’ve always mowed, or, do you own up to where the tree line is? Do you own to where the utility pole is or to where the electric box is located? Do you know the answer?

Property Maps: A Quick Glance at Property lines

We get calls on a daily basis that ask, “Can you just tell me where my property lines are without doing a survey?” The answer is, “As a Licensed Surveyor, I cannot.” As a licensed professional, we are subject to the statues which govern our industry. The laws are very specific about property lines, property maps and property corners. Without performing a boundary survey, we cannot tell you where your lines are.

What is a Property Easement

As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary an easement is an interest in land owned by another person, consisting in the right to use or control the land, or an area above or below it, for a specific limited purpose (such as to cross it for access to a public road).  May last forever, but it does not give the holder the right to possess, take from, improve, or sell the land.