A property survey is a document that shows your property lines including any land, structures, and features that you legally own (versus that which you don’t own!) as a schematic diagram of angles and measurements. A property survey looks like a sketch drawn from an aerial perspective and may be as simple as four boundary lines with their respective dimensions. Surveys can also be more detailed and include past improvements to the property, topography, utilities, and more.
You don’t always need a property survey to sell your house, but you can imagine how this handy little piece of paper would be a nice visual aid for potential homebuyers. Depending on your lot, a survey could also be necessary to clear up any questions over your boundary lines or easements on the property. Read on to find out when the property survey comes into play during a typical real estate transaction and how to obtain one if you need it.
What’s the point of a property survey?
You’re generally not required to get a property survey if you want to sell your house. Sometimes, if your lot is well defined, you don’t need to bother with it.
“The majority of the time, we don’t do surveys on city residential lots unless there’s a specific reason that we need to,” said Derek Gilbert, a top real estate agent in Centennial, Colorado.
“A lot of newer subdivisions have fences. You can see where the homes are. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re built in the right place, but it gives you an idea of the lot. So we don’t usually do surveys unless there’s something weird that caught your eye and indicated we should probably get a survey and make sure this is right.”
Property surveys in general, however, may help to add transparency to a home purchase. Here are a few cases and property types where a property survey might change the direction of a transaction, for better or worse:
1. Acreage properties
Rick Wilson, a professional land surveyor who’s owned a surveying company since 1981, says that he’s working on a project right now where a buyer bought 50 acres, but discovered later the fences on the land are all off by about 98 feet.
“Now he’s going to wind up in court proving his boundary that should have been demonstrated to him before he bought the property,” Wilson said. “It’s a lengthy court process and it’s expensive. Any time you have two attorneys and court filings, it’s going to be an expensive deal.”
2. The property has some kind of unique hazard
An upfront property survey could save a seller from getting too far into a deal that later unravels due to unknown factors. In one case, after the buyer signed a purchase contact on a house in Missouri, he asked Wilson’s company to do a property survey, one that included looking for sinkholes.
As it turned out, the under-contract property was on a sinkhole-designated area. That means the underground water channel below the building collapsed, putting the property at risk for flooding and collapsing itself.
About 20% of the U.S. is at risk for sinkholes, especially Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. The property hadn’t collapsed, but the buyer didn’t want to go through with the purchase and the seller had no idea there was even an issue to begin with. The situation could have been avoided if the seller had taken the initiative to get a property survey done before beginning a sale.
“If the seller had knowledge of the situation he could have had a geotechnical engineering group evaluate the stability of the site and make recommendations as to the risks associated with the building,” Wilson said. “A stormwater engineer could address the flooding question. With full disclosure and planned mitigation, a buyer could be enticed to buy the property, although it might be at a reduced sales price.”
The same advice could apply to a property owner who’s selling a house in a designated floodplain.
3. Boundary confirmation
When you sell a piece of real estate, the size recorded with the title must equal the actual property size. Sometimes neighbors accidentally build over the property line or fences erected on boundary lines encroach on the area designated by the title. A survey may be ordered to confirm the actual boundary and the discrepancy between the recorded land deed and the current boundary.
“We once had a property whose boundary didn’t match up to the title,” says Ralph DiBugnara, Vice President of Retail Sales for RH Funding, a New York City-based mortgage lending firm. “Turns out the neighbor added an extension to his home without checking the property lines. The extension encroached on the seller’s property. Needless to say, the deal didn’t go through, which was a shame because the buyer really liked the house.”
Ralph did not know how the property owner handled the encroachment with the neighbor, but in other cases, homeowners face the unpleasant prospect of tearing down garages, extensions or fences built on neighbor’s properties.
4. Proper noting of an easement in the deed
Easements on a property are a “legal right to trespass.” Utility companies could have an easement on a property so they can access utility lines, or an owner of an acreage lot could grant access to their private road to a neighbor, creating an easement for them to pass through.
Easements can be an issue when you have to clear title and they’re not properly documented. Mo Choumil, founder and CEO of ATG Title in Fairfax, Virginia, recently ran into an issue like this. A local home backed up to railroad tracks and should have had an easement noted in the property’s description. But there wasn’t one documented, so now the house won’t sell without a correction to the deed, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars, Choumil said.
5. Homes without a defined lot
Property surveys can bring an added value to a home sale, unless something drastic like those sinkholes come to light. If the property is unique or oddly shaped, it can bring clarity to the buyer about where exactly the lot lines are. Sometimes, it can even make the sale more enticing for a buyer—like if the property is bigger than everyone initially thought, or if there’s good placement among utility lines for a potential addition or outbuilding.
6. Property additions
Whether you’re selling your house or not, you may still need a property survey at some point to avoid issues like boundary encroachments. You should consider getting one if you’re planning to do any of the following home projects, some of which might require one.
- General home addition
- Garage addition
- New building on the property
- Any other type of major construction
- Planting trees or shrubs
- Building a fence
- Adding a patio
- Adding a deck
“A property survey will show you a picture of your property with all the improvements, utilities, and easements on it,” Wilson said. “With all that information, you can plan your deck expansion and know you’re not going to be pushing it out to another property or digging holes where there should be utilities.
“Surveys let you plan better for whatever improvement it may be, whether that’s shrubbery, or an addition to the building, or adding a deck, or pouring a concrete patio.”
During a sale, the person who wants the survey is the person who pays for it.
There’s no hard and fast rule designating who pays for the property survey in a home sale—it often comes down to who wants one. If the buyer wants it, the buyer pays. If the seller wants it, the seller pays. It can also be worked into a sale and negotiated between the buyer and the seller.
The cost of a survey can vary based on where the home is located. If it’s an older subdivision that doesn’t have a lot of records about property lines, that will take longer and be more expensive.
“We’re doing one now where the subdivision was built in the 1890s,” Wilson said. “There’s very little monumentation [indicators of property lines—like fences, trees, streets, or even flags stuck in the ground along the lot lines] so we are doing a lot of interpretation and spending a lot more time on it. It’s going to cost more.”
The size of a property can change the cost, as well—it’ll take quite a bit longer to survey 40 acres than a half-acre. On the whole, though, both Gilbert and Wilson have seen property survey costs range between $400 and $1200. The lower end is usually for newer subdivisions, and the higher end is for older, Wilson says. According to Angie’s List, the national average is about $550. HomeGuide says the average is even lower, at about $422.
Where can you get a property survey if you need one?
In some states, property surveys are public record—but in others, they aren’t. Check with your public records office first to determine if they have one. At the least, they might have a plat map, which shows the lot lines, buildings, and streets of a neighborhood. If none of that is accessible, you’ll have to do it on your own.
If you’re getting a new property survey…
If you’re starting out from scratch on a property with no survey already done, the easiest way to find a surveyor to do it is to search online. You could try Yelp, a simple Google search, or even the Yellow Pages. But the best option to find a reputable surveying company, Gilbert says, is to ask your real estate agent for a referral.
“They’re going to have people that are comfortable with and have prior experiences with,” he said.
They’ll also be able to tell you if you need one or not. For instance, if you’re adding a deck that is clearly well within the bounds of your property lines, you likely won’t need a survey for that project.
If you’re finding an old one…
Getting a property survey for a house that’s already had one will save you both time and money—assuming you know who did the survey. Wilson says most surveyors will give homeowners a copy of a previously ordered survey upon request.
Keep in mind, however, that if you weren’t the original person who requested the survey be done, you will still be charged a fee. According to Wilson, that fee is to cover the cost of updating the survey, redirecting it to a new owner, and covering any copyright costs.
“But it’s certainly going to be less than if I’m coming into an area I haven’t been in before and spending a lot more time getting a new survey pulled together,” he said. “I always encourage people to go back to the original surveyor because they’ve already done the job once. It’s easy to retrace it and update it.”
The bottom line when it comes to property surveys is this: They may not be needed, but they’re certainly a good idea. You never know what issues could come up during the home sale process, so unless you’re absolutely sure about your property lines, placement of the utilities, easements, and more, it’s worth it to spend the extra money in the name of heading off future hassles.
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