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Property Surveys: Knowing What You Own

How much do you know about your property? Do you know its legal description? Could you dig up your old plat map and calculate precisely where your property starts and where it ends? Do you know who has the right to come on your property? Do you know who you can keep out? If you do, you are beyond the competency of perhaps most property owners.

People hire professional surveyors to settle common property description issues before problems arise. And in addition to surveys, many people want other certifications, such as a zoning opinion letter, an environmental certification, or a flood plain classification from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Following are common reasons property owners hire surveyors:

  • Boundary Lines. The location of boundary lines and other lines of possession and occupancy are vital to know before improving your property. Surveys often reveal that property owners and lessees operate under false assumptions about where the property lines run. Before you build that garage or erect that fence, you should make sure you are building it on your property and not your neighbor’s plat. A survey will also tell you if your property’s description is correct.
  • Overlaps, and Gaps. Unless a survey states, certification should include that there are no discrepancies between your property’s boundary lines and the adjoining property lines. Ensuring there are no gaps and overlaps is important especially if your property contains streets, highways, alleys, or roads.
  • Rights-of-Way, Easements, and Abandoned Roads. A survey will show the conditions imposed by law reflected in your property’s title record and other covenants. If your property blocks your neighbor's access to the road, for example, the previous owner may have agreed to give your neighbor the right to cross your property. Even if no such agreement exists, the neighbor may have a legal right to cross your property if that is the only way he can access infrastructure.
  • Creeks, Lakes, Ponds, Rivers, Streams, and Wells. An average survey will report visible or surface waters only. Subterranean waters are better inspected by other professionals.
  • Encroachments, Joint Driveways, Overhangs, Party Walls, Projections, or Rights-of-Support. Whether you are aware or not, you may have a duty to support your neighbor’s property by keeping your own maintained.
  • Existing Improvements. The survey will usually determine whether the buildings and other improvements, alterations, and repairs to your property at the time of the survey are or are not in violation of laws or other regulations, such as zoning ordinances regarding height, set-backs, and parking. If the survey shows that your property is violating zoning laws, then you will be on notice and the countdown to repair will begin.
  • Cables, Catchbasins, Drains, Electric, Gas, Lines, Manhole Covers, Poles, Telephone and Telegraph Pipes, Vaults, Wires, and Water. Above-ground lines and wires are obvious, but the survey can usually report on the existence of underground features also, if the relevant information is available to him or her. Knowing the precise locations of underground features is crucial prior to beginning excavation or construction.
  • Access, Egress, and Ingress. The survey should determine any physical vehicular ingress and egress to open public streets. It may also review access for a particular purpose, such as delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, and driveways for tenants.
  • Zoning Classification. You likely know whether your property is zoned residential, commercial, or industrial. You may be surprised to learn that your zoning category restricts how you may use your property. Some classifications are particularly strict, limiting heights of structures, types of structures, traffic, and various other aspects of land use. The survey should only report zoning jurisdiction and classification.

Once you have your completed and certified survey, you may want to consult an attorney about whether you are using your property in according to zoning ordinances or for other advice about the legal ramifications of your property survey.

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