How to Survey Your Own Property

There are many reasons you may need to conduct a property survey and determine where the exact boundaries of your property lie. If you are buying or selling a home, this can be important in listing the correct area, or it may be important for construction purposes to be sure you don’t cross the confines. In these scenarios, you should hire a professional surveyor. This is what most homes for sale in Lakeland, FL, will have done before posting a listing. However, to simply understand the legal lines of your home, you can perform a rough survey yourself with a bit of research and caution.

Deciding to Survey Your Land 

The main driver behind a self-survey of your property is to settle disputes surrounding property lines, hopefully without involving courts and other formalities. These disputes may arise when one party is trying to sell their property or perform construction, and the other believes they have encroached. Fences, trees, and other outdoor structures are often in question in these scenarios. While only a professionally performed survey is legally binding, you can perform a survey yourself to get a sense of where property lines may be and try to come to an agreement.

It is important to know that in many cases, especially in more rural areas, the existing boundaries are not the real, legal boundaries of a property. You and a neighbor may have a fence or a natural line, like a ditch or creek, that has divided the property for a long time and been accepted as the delineation between homes. However, if your deed specifies a different line, that one will take precedence.

A land survey is fairly time-consuming and tedious, which is why there are professional surveyors who are trained and can charge hundreds of dollars. Only these surveys can be used in court, presented to a bank as part of a sale, or used to move existing property markers. These surveys will include information in addition to the general boundaries, such as gaps or overlaps with neighboring properties, easements, right of way, ownership of water features, relationship to neighboring properties, utility rights, access points, and zoning issues.

However, you can get an educated estimate of your land’s boundary line through your own survey, which can help in non-legal situations. You will need to be cautious and detail-oriented, and be sure to never rely on your own results for matters that could have legal repercussions before proceeding.

Preparing for a Property Survey

As a part of conducting a survey, you will need to first acquire the right documentation surrounding your property. This starts with a legal document that describes your land- usually, the deed is sufficient for this. The deed will have a section called “legal description,” which lays out the boundaries and the relationship between them.

You may also have a surveyor’s map of your land, which is known as a plat. A plat will show an actual map of the borders of your property and the surrounding areas, but it may be difficult to locate. Plats can sometimes be combined with the deed, or they may be in city and county records. If you can’t find a plat for your property, there may be one for a surrounding property that helps to identify shared boundaries. Previous survey maps are not always accurate, and not all land has been surveyed in the past, so this is not always the most reliable source.

A plat will usually be simple to read and understand, as it is a visual representation of the land and may even contain coordinates or triangulation information. The legal description on a deed will usually be more complicated and will use either metes and bounds or the public land survey system to describe the boundary lines. These two methods differ in a number of ways:

  • Metes and bounds use a bearing (or direction) and length (or distance) between points to describe the property. This uses specific notations to list the relative proximity of points on your land to one another.

  • The PLSS is an older system that split land into 640-acre sections, then split those into quarters, and those into quarters, and so on. Each section is numbered and then described with fractions.

Once you have read and understood these documents, you can gather tools to begin your own survey. You will need a method of ensuring you are measuring progress, like a compass and a very long tape measure. Be sure to print out and bring maps and documents with you as well. You will also need a method of marking the property, like flags or posts.

You will need to choose a starting point to begin your measurements from, which can be anything. Legal descriptions may specify a starting point that you can locate on your property, or you can use PLSS coordinates and a map. Markers that can be moved, like a tree or a fence, are generally unreliable and not the best option for determining a starting point.

Conducting Your Property Survey 

Once you have your supplies gathered and you are in the known corner from which you will start, you can begin by marking that corner. Be sure to use your own marker and not rely on survey monuments that could have moved or been mismarked over time. Once you have marked your corner, use a compass to find the bearing to the next marker and plant one end of your measuring tape at the first corner. Start walking, maintaining your compass heading. It can help to identify a landmark that you are moving towards to help you stay on track.

When you are measuring distance, keep in mind that the described distance is not in relation to the topography of the land, but is the horizontal distance without respect to obstruction or hills. Determining this actual distance can mean you need to find creative ways to keep a tape measure exactly level during the process. If you cannot directly pass through a certain area, keep moving exactly perpendicular to your bearing until you are past the obstruction. Move forward towards the marker, then return to course when you can, moving perpendicularly in the opposite direction.

Once you reach the next corner and find the identified marker, you can mark it. Keep in mind that it may be buried or missing. If it is a metal rod or spike, you may be able to use a metal detector- your compass will actually act as a metal detector if you hold it close to the ground near the marker’s location. If the hand points downward towards the ground and spins, there is something metallic nearby, which could be the marker. Markers can be anything from metal rods to old piles of charcoal, and some may be impossible to locate accurately. If you can’t find one, try locating the next corner and working from there.

Repeat this process for all corners on the property, approximating as best as you can where there is no marker. Ensure each corner is marked. Some people will choose to mark along the property line as well, which can help you retrace your path at a later date. You should eventually arrive back at your starting point, with a completely marked plot of land behind you.

When to Hire a Professional

If you need to turn the results of your survey in, you will likely need to hire a professional land surveyor. Buying or selling a property may require you to have these documents created and submitted to the bank and other parties, and they will not be considered valid if they are not performed by a licensed surveyor. Be sure that anyone you hire is licensed, insured, and has years of experience and a proven track record. It is also important to hire someone who specializes in property surveys, rather than a general contractor or a handyman who also offers this service.

A survey that is inaccurate can cause more than just clerical issues. Being off by even a few inches can lead you to sell or build on property that does not belong to you, and the neighbor who does own that land will have legal grounds to take you to court. The cost of these legal endeavors can be much higher than simply hiring a surveyor in the first place.

The average cost for a professional survey is around $400 to $700, though this can vary based on the size, terrain, and location of the property. You may also be charged for the time surveyors spend researching your property’s history, especially if it is not well documented. Travel may also be an additional charge, so look for a local business where possible.

There are certainly cases where surveying your own land is sufficient, especially when it is well-documented and you do not need legal standing. In other cases, you may hire a professional to protect yourself and your property legally.

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