A property survey is a precise measurement and delineation of the size, shape, and boundaries of a property. Typically performed by trained and certified Surveyors, property surveys serve to create an official record of property lines, easements, and land placement. In layman’s terms, it lets a homeowner know exactly what they own and what they don’t.

Do I Need a Survey When Buying a Property?

Many states do not require home buyers to secure a survey prior to purchasing a home. Similar, many lenders allow loans to fund and real estate transactions to close without a recent survey. Yet, home buyers may be wise to invest in one. There are many pitfalls you can avoid with a new property survey.

1. Old surveys can be landmark based

Today, property surveys are conducted scientifically with sophisticated lasers, prisms, GPS, and high-tech geolocation tools. However, if your home or the property you are buying is old enough, boundaries may documented using landmarks.

An old survey may indicate that your property line extends to the creek or the large oak tree on the south-west corner. If the creek ran dry or the tree was cut down years ago, how will you know how far your land extends? If your neighbor decides to build a work shed and you feel it’s over the property line, do you have a survey that can prove an encroachment?

2. Know the actual size of the property

This may seem extreme, but these cases do happen. The Washington Post reported the story of a family who bought their dream home with a large backyard. That is, until they were denied a permit for building a pool because their backyard was too small. Thinking there was an error, the owner responded with the dimensions of the large backyard. The city’s response? The property survey on file showed they only owned about half of that beautiful backyard.

Another risk is that structures on your own property may be in violation of building codes. For example, the gorgeous greenhouse that you inspired you to buy the home may be two feet too close the property line and the city may charge you with moving it, tearing it down, or paying hefty fees for code violations. It doesn’t matter if was there for 20 years before you bought the home. The old adage “ignorance of the law excuses no one” applies and there is no guarantee you will be granted an exception.

3. Property lines and encroachments change

We’ve shared the risk involved with not having a survey or relying on antiquated surveys, but what if the survey is just a few years old? Or if the house is new construction? Does what make a survey unnecessary? Maybe, here is why.

Municipalities handle dozens to thousands of land disputes every single year. According to FindLaw.com, disputes are not always resolved in manner favorable to the property owner. Let’s say you get a survey for your new home and it shows that your neighbor’s garage is 6 inches over your property line. Does this automatically mean your neighbor has to tear down their garage and give you your land back? No. If the garage was built with the prior owner’s consent and it has been there long enough, the municipality may grant a prescriptive easement allowing that garage to stay right where it is.
Other surprises may involve recent encroachments by the city or utility companies. You may be willing to pay a certain price to buy a home with a specific lot size, but if several square feet of that lot are no longer available to you, your willingness to pay may change.

Finally, if you are buying a newly constructed home, beware any unofficial diagrams given to you by the builder. Often these diagrams are estimates and not based on any real measurements. Before closing on your home, insist on a new survey by a certified survey professional or secure your own. Finding out that you own only part of the land you though you bought is never a pleasant surprise.

Property Surveys Avoid Unpleasant Surprises

Since property surveys are not always required by states or lenders, many home buyers do not even think to secure one. Others may balk at the out-of-pocket cost which can range from $200 to $1,000 depending on the location and size of the property.
However, investing in a survey makes sure you are getting what you are paying for whether you are building a new home or purchasing an existing structure. Protect your investment by making sure that you know what you are buying and if there are any questions about property lines, that these are resolved before closing. Plus, you never know when a survey will show that you are about to own more land than you thought – happy surprises happen too!

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