Is a land survey essential to get when buying a parcel of land? Or is it an unnecessary cost?

The answer will be different depending on what you choose to do with your land, the size of the parcel and where it is.

So when should you get a land survey, how much does a land survey cost and what is the purpose?

What Is A Land Survey?

A land survey is a graphical depiction of a property, much like a map. It defines the legal boundaries and other features of the property.

Land surveys are not compulsory when you purchase land-unless you are seeking financing and then the lender will probably insist on a survey- which you will pay for.

What Is The Land Surveying Process?

Professional surveyors will use a variety of instruments and equipment to perform exact measurements and draw out the boundaries of your land.

They may use tools like GPS or an altimeter (which measures elevation) or a theodolite (which is used to triangulate the position of objects).

land survey equipment

They will also use information within the property deed which may refer to certain landmarks and descriptions of the land. Your surveyor will understand compass bearings, waypoints and navigation to mark out the boundaries using metal posts (sometimes called “stakes”).

It is unlawful to remove, replace or move any survey monument (unless you are the licensed professional and have a valid reason).

Each state has its own minimum standard for monumentation that a surveyor is required to follow. The surveyor may set rebar with a plastic cap identifying it into the ground. Or if property corners are on concrete, magnetic nails or marks might be chipped into the pavement.

When Should I Get A Land Survey?

Many times, rural land owners do not need a survey. The county GIS map and /or the legal description and parcel outline will suffice.

Sometimes it will be obvious where your property boundaries begin and end.

In other cases, it may be impossible to know the exact boundary but it is does not matter too much as there is no one for miles around and no one is using the property boundary at all. 

For example if you have bought 40 acre parcel in the middle of nowhere that you use twice a year to go camping with your kids in the summer, there is no need at all to fork out for the cost of a land survey.

Tools and technology have improved so much that it is possible to buy your own handheld GPS tool and enter the GPS coordinates from the county data.

Check out how to use GPS to find your property here. You can “walk” your own property and get a very good idea where your property boundary is.

a land survey

Many of our customers are hunters and have their own hunting apps which shows them boundary lines. Though please note that none of these methods are exact. They are only approximations. If an approximation is good enough for your purposes (and it is for many rural land owners) then you won’t require a survey.

However if you do decide to put up a building or fence that is near a boundary, a survey is a good idea to ensure there are no problems later on if you accidently build on someone else’s land.

If you believe someone has built on your property without your permission, a professional survey is the only legally binding way to decide the outcome in a property dispute.

Are There Different Types Of Land Surveys?

Yes -it depends on your reasons for getting a land survey.

1.         ALTA survey (American Land Title Association) is what a title company requires before issuing title insurance. This is also called a mortgage survey and is required by most financial institutions before lending on the property.

This is the most common form of survey and involves a simple evaluation of the boundaries and identifies any easements or fences.

2.         A boundary survey or location survey will determine the exact location of the boundary or may locate easements. It will also confirm the exact size of the property.

A boundary survey will ensure your structure will not encroach on your neighbors land and will identify if your neighbour is encroaching on your land.

Sometimes if you are looking to have a parcel of land re-zoned, you will need to provide a location survey.

A lot of land in rural locations has never been surveyed. Even the assessor may not know exactly how big the parcel is.

Sometimes the legal description will actually say “10acres, more or less”. This is nothing to worry about and for most people makes no difference at all if their land is 9.9acres or 10.1acres, especially if you are not putting up structures.

If, and when you decide to build, you may decide to invest in a survey at that time.  However if you are certain that your building is nowhere near the boundary, you may decide that a survey is not warranted.

3.           If you are looking to buy a large parcel then subdivide the land,  you will require a subdivision survey to create new plats to be filed in the recorder’s office.

4.          If you are applying for a building permit, you may need a site-plan survey to outline the proposed building showing where it is in relation to the boundary survey.

5.          A construction survey involves the surveyor staking out the location of planned structures so the builders know exactly where to build.

6.          A topographical survey identifies the natural and man made features on the property. These may include ponds, lake, buildings, trees, hills, fences and utilities. This type of survey is often used by architects and engineers for planning site improvements.

For most of us, buying rural land to build an off-grid cabin or for recreational use or homesteading on large acreage probably won’t require a land survey.

How Much Does A Land Survey Cost?

The real answer is “it depends.

Typically most standard land surveys for standard houses in standard subdivisions may cost between $500-$1000.

This is because they are usually small plots without much variation in terrain.

Most land surveys are quoted on a project by project basis as rural land parcels vary so much in terrain, acreage and topography.

land survey cost

You can imagine that it is a completely different prospect to survey a standard residential 0.25acre plot in a easy subdivision compared to a hilly 40 acre parcel way out of town with 3 lakes on it and dense woodland.

Typical survey fees range from $150-$220 per hour.

It may take most surveyors 2-4 hours to survey a small 0.25acre lot.

It may take 6-8 hours to survey a 3ac lot.

We recently had a survey performed for a 10ac parcel we had and it took 2 days to survey the property and 2 weeks to get the report back.

Do the math for a property of 160acres in size….. It adds up very quickly!

A land survey easily costs several thousand dollars for larger properties like these. If you are looking for a land surveyor, you could try here.

Who Should Pay For A Land Survey?

As with anything related to property, this is always up for negotiation.

Typically the buyer will pay for a land survey as it is in their interest to fully understand what they are buying and to identify any potential conflicts, hazards or disputes prior to parting with their cash.

The buyer will need to assess the potential “risk” of not getting a survey versus the cost of getting a land survey. Depending on the size of the land, the purpose you wish to use the land for, your risk tolerance, the presence or lack of neighbors and whether you are seeking external finance or paying cash.

It is the buyer who will benefit from the results of the land survey. The buyer could request the seller share some of the costs of the survey. This request may or may not be granted. It depends on the situation.

So Do I Really Need A Land Survey?

If you are buying a parcel of land out in the middle of nowhere with no boundary disputes, without a bunch of houses or fences around, it is probably not worth having a property survey. You can get the GPS coordinates from the county GIS or ask the seller if they have this information and a parcel outline.

From this information you can easily work out your own property boundaries to the extent that you need it.

If you are buying a small parcel of land in California, New York or Chicago and are planning to build a multi million dollar property on it, you will absolutely need a land survey to ensure the property boundaries are crystal clear as you will be looking to maximise every square inch.

You will need to be absolutely certain that you are not encroaching on your neighbor’s land.

For most of our customers buying land in rural areas, it is not worth having a land survey as there is no dispute, no fencing and no encroaching on any boundaries. Many of these properties have no structures on them.

As ever though, it is up to you and your risk tolerance. If you are buying 40 acres and you are looking to build a house and place it in the middle of the land, there is no danger that you will be encroaching on the boundary, a land survey will provide you very little value.

If you are buying 10 acres and need to fence in your property boundary to protect livestock, it may be a good idea to have a land survey to ensure you know where the exact boundary is.

Let us know if you have gained value from a land survey?

Published by Anne Samuel

Anne is a passionate land investor who loves spotting opportunities and helping new land investors get on the ladder and get their first acreage. When she is not out scouting for insanely awesome deals for you, she can be found either surfing, downhill mountain biking or practising her amateur chef skills.

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