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Property surveys outline the legal boundaries of a piece of land and illustrate the natural features and manmade structures located on the property.
When you’re buying a house, a survey can show you everything that’s included with the property. If you’re building new construction or plan to add onto your existing home, a survey can help prevent future property disputes by ensuring all structures stay within your property lines.
Here’s what you should know about what’s included in a property survey, why they’re important, the types of surveys available, when you might need one, and how to get one.
The purpose of a property survey is to verify the legal descriptions of a property, including the official property lines of a piece of land. But a survey shows more than the size and location of the boundary lines.
It’s a detailed map that depicts the location of physical features, such as large trees, human-made structures, such as buildings and patios, and underground elements, such as pipes, on a parcel of land.
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A survey also shows whether property has any easements or encroachments. These easements may give someone other than the landowner the right to access part or all of the property, and encroachments are structures that are partially located on another property owner’s land.
A property survey can be helpful for many reasons:
If you’re buying a home, the survey shows you where your property begins and ends and what structures, including driveways and fences, are inside your property lines. This can clear up questions about what belongs to you and what belongs to your neighbor.
You can help prevent disputes with neighbors by confirming a property’s boundaries before adding structures like fences or pools to an existing property or building a new house on a vacant lot.
If you’re planning a renovation, your contractor and local jurisdiction will typically require a survey to pull permits.
Property surveys can indicate whether a piece of land is in certain hazard areas, like a flood zone.
Title companies often require a property survey before they’ll issue a title insurance policy when you’re buying a new home.
Different types of property surveys
Property surveys come in many different types, and the right survey for you depends on how it will be used. Here’s a brief description of seven common types of property surveys:
Boundary survey: This confirms the legal property lines of a piece of land.
Topographic survey: A topographic survey shows the shape, elevation, grading, and physical features of a property. Architects, engineers, and contractors often use it before designing and building a house.
Location survey: This shows the approximate location of buildings and improvements on a piece of land. Mortgage lenders and title insurance companies frequently use location surveys before approving a loan application or issuing an insurance policy. This type of survey is also known as a location drawing, and it’s not an official boundary survey.
Mortgage survey: A mortgage survey verifies a property’s boundary lines and the structures on it for the purpose of title and homeowners insurance.
Subdivision survey: This outlines the boundaries of a larger piece of land that a developer will split up into smaller pieces.
New construction survey: This type of survey shows the location of planned construction. Professionals use new construction surveys to determine where to build things like buildings, roadways, and pipes.
ALTA (American Land Title Association) survey: The most comprehensive type of property survey available, an ALTA survey includes boundary lines, improvements, easements, and encroachments. You can also ask the surveyor to include other features and information for an additional fee.
A property survey provides information about the size and features of a property. Depending on the type of survey you choose, it may include the following information:
Property lines: The outer limits of the property show exactly where a piece of land begins and ends.
Improvements: These are structures such as fences, pools, decks, and patios that were added to the property.
Easements: These are areas of the property that other people have access to. For example, a utility company may have the right to access the water pipes or electric lines that run through your yard. Or a neighbor may have the right to share your driveway. Easements typically transfer from property owner to property owner, so you may need to honor previous easements if you buy a piece of property.
Encroachments: These are improvements, such as fences or sheds, from one property owner’s land that are partially located on someone else’s property.
Physical features: These are elements such as hills, trees, elevation points, and the grading of the property.
Floodplain: If the property is in a flood zone, the survey will note it.
Underground structures: The survey may include underground elements, such as pipes, drains, and cables.
When do you need a property survey?
You may need a property survey when you’re buying, selling, building, or renovating a property. Surveys provide valuable information about the boundaries, improvements, physical features, easements, and encroachments on a piece of land. Getting a professional property survey can help prevent property disputes and buyer’s remorse.
For example, if you’re planning to add a sunroom to the side of your house, the survey may show that the planned footprint of the new extension is partly on your neighbor’s property. If you’re aware of the property lines, you can adjust your plans before construction begins to avoid problems later.
Likewise, if buying a property means you have to share a driveway with your neighbor, knowing this information before you close on the home allows you to make an informed decision you won’t later regret.
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How to get a property survey
If you need a property survey, here are a few ways you may be able to get one:
Review your closing paperwork. Check the closing paperwork from the sale of the property to see if the seller included a survey.
Check your property deed. The deed transfers ownership of a piece of land from one person to another. In some cases, it may also include a detailed property survey.
Search property survey records in your area. You may be able to find them at the local tax assessor’s office, building department, or land recorder’s office.
Hire a surveyor. If you can’t find an existing survey or the one you have is too old, you can hire a professional land surveyor to conduct one for you.
How much does a property survey cost?
The price of a typical survey ranges from $376 to $745, according to Angi data. The exact amount you may pay varies based on the size of the property, the type of survey you want to conduct, your location, and the terrain.
Whether you need a property survey for your next home improvement project or you want to find out whether your future neighbor’s fence is encroaching on your property, here are some important things to know about getting a survey.
Can you buy a house without a property survey?
It depends. If you’re getting a mortgage to finance the purchase of your home, your mortgage lender may require you to have a property survey. If your lender doesn’t require a property survey, you may be able to buy a house without one. If you move forward with the home purchase without a survey, your title insurance policy won’t typically cover disputes that could have been identified with a survey.
Do you need a property survey if you’re buying a house with cash?
If you’re buying a house with cash, you likely won’t need to have a survey. However, knowing the legal boundaries of a piece of land, and whether there are any encroachments or easements, can help you make an informed purchasing decision and prevent future property disputes.
How long is a property survey good for?
Property surveys don’t typically have an expiration date. However, since a survey is meant to show the current state of a piece of land, you may need to get a new one if the existing survey is more than a few years old. Having an updated survey will ensure the information accurately reflects the condition of the property.
What’s the difference between a plot plan and a land survey?
A plot plan is a drawing that shows the structures — such as buildings, fences, and decks — that already exist on a piece of land. Local agencies often use them in zoning reviews to ensure the property meets local building codes. A land survey is more accurate and includes the exact location and measurements of the property lines as well as physical features of the property.
Jennifer Brozic is a content marketing writer, specializing in the financial services and insurance industries. She's committed to helping her clients create content that inspires people to take action. Her areas of expertise include insurance, financial planning & budgeting, building credit, loans, credit cards and more.