What is a Land Survey, and Do I Need One?

Many homeowners have a general idea of where their property ends—at least enough to know where they shouldn’t build a fence because it may be on their neighbor’s land.

But in order to determine the official property lines and the dimensions of property features like outbuildings, homeowners need to arrange land surveys. Knowing this information can help save you money and headaches down the road.

There are a few different types of land surveys. The kind you need will depend on whether you’re buying a property, improving a property, obtaining title insurance, settling a dispute, or something else.

Person holding up land survey map branded in Spruce purple

What are land surveys and how are they performed?

A land survey is a map-like rendering of a piece of property. It includes the official boundaries of the property and other features, such as buildings, easements (rights to use the property without owning it, like a cable company running power lines under your yard), slopes, and other pertinent information.

A land surveyor will examine any legal records about the property and then perform an in-person survey of the land.

Some of the most common types of land surveys include:

  • ALTA land surveys: Land surveys that demarcate the property lines of a parcel of land and include information about easements and “improvements” such as roads, fences and paths. ALTA surveys meet strict criteria set by the American Land Title Association and the National Society of Professional Surveyors.
  • Boundary land surveys: Land surveys that determine the property lines of a parcel of land, particularly the corners of the lot. These surveys are sometimes known as mortgage surveys, since they are often used in mortgage transactions.
  • Location land surveys: Land surveys that establish where certain improvements, like walkways and fencing, are located on a property relative to the property lines.
  • Site-planning land surveys: Land surveys are often used when you seek to add improvements to your property. These include boundaries as well as topographic elements like trees, streams or slopes.

Do I need to order a land survey for my property?

Reasons people get land surveys include resolving boundary disputes between neighbors, building a new home or other building on a plot of land and identifying a property’s susceptibility to hazards like flooding.

Arranging a land survey can be particularly useful when you are buying a home. Some mortgage lenders even require a land survey before finalizing the loan.

A land survey lets you know for sure what you’re buying before you sign on the dotted line. Existing property dividers, like fences and driveways, may not follow accurate property lines, which could mean you’re paying an inflated price for less land than you originally thought (or vice versa).

Many people are tempted to forgo land surveys because they can be pricey. According to Homeadvisor, land surveys can cost between $200 and $800, depending on your location, the type of survey, and the size of the property in question. 

If you’re surveying land to build a new structure or ordering an ALTA survey, you’ll likely pay a bit more: between $1,000 and $2,000 for a new construction survey and $2,000 and $3,000 for an ALTA survey.

But if you don’t have an up-to-date, accurate land survey of your property, you may end up spending much more to deal with the problems that can arise as a result.

What can go wrong if I don’t have a land survey?

Many people rely on land surveys from the past when buying or altering property. But if the old survey doesn’t reflect the current state of the property, the property owner could run into trouble later on.

Here are a few situations that can emerge when homeowners fail to order land surveys:

Boundary disputes 

Without a land survey, it can be easy to make the wrong assumption about where your property begins and ends.

A Canadian couple became a cautionary tale when they bought their home without ordering a new land survey. They soon learned that a large portion of their backyard actually belonged to a local university, which refused to sell the land to them despite the fact that their septic tank and storage shed were located there.

Title claims that aren’t covered by existing title insurance

Title insurance protects you from potential ownership issues like legal claims when you buy a piece of property. Some, but not all, title insurance companies require a new land survey before issuing a title insurance policy. 

If you don’t order a new land survey, your title insurer may exclude you from certain types of coverage, like coverage for losses related to boundary issues or easements. That means you could get hit with a loss down the road.

Liability for injuries on your property (that you didn’t realize was your property)

If you don’t order a land survey, you can’t be 100% sure where your property boundaries are, which can create problems with liability.

Say your neighbor adds a walkway that you both think is on their property but is actually on your property. If someone slips and falls on that walkway, you could be held liable for it, since it’s on your land.

When you’re buying property or making significant changes to your existing property, a new land survey may seem like just another expense to add to the list. But as tempting as it may be to skip it, a land survey can help you understand exactly what you’re getting and save you a lot of stress and money later on.

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