What Is Land Surveying? 14 Things You Need to Know in 2020

What Is Land Surveying? 14 Things You Need to Know in 2020

Perhaps you’ve seen a land surveyor and thought, “What’s that person doing and what exactly is land surveying?”

Land surveyors are a unique breed.

They walk properties with a tripod and a strange-looking stick.

Their job (art and science!) is to determine the terrestrial or three-dimensional positions of points and distances and angles between them.

This process is to use these points to establish maps and boundaries for ownership, locations, etc.

In a lot of cases, land surveyors will be hired to determine where the property lines are located.

However, there are other reasons why land may be surveyed.

In this blog, we’ll discuss land surveying as a whole and everything you need to know before you get a survey yourself.

1. Land surveying is useful (even if you think you don’t need one)

In most cases, people hear “land surveying” and automatically associate it with some type of remodeling.

However, this isn’t the only instance in which land surveying can serve you well as a landowner.

Understanding when it’s best to have one can help you make an informed decision about whether to hire a land surveyor yourself.

bulletPurchasing a new home:

While new construction doesn’t always require a survey, mortgage lenders often do.

This is to ensure that the borders are as they are described and that there are no potential encroachments.

bulletSettling a dispute:

If you’re in a dispute with your neighbor about whose property a fixture is on (a building, fence, etc.), then a surveyor can help determine the facts.

The surveyor’s determination will also have legal holding in court, so keep in mind that even if you don’t like the decision by the surveyor you hired, you’re kind of stuck with it.

bulletAdding onto your home:

Before you add an in-law unit or a storage shed, make sure you’ve surveyed your property.

You can (unfortunately) end up with a lawsuit or fines to pay if you don’t follow the property setback requirements or you’re not clear on the boundaries of the property.

While this is inconvenient, it is best to

2. You can hire a land surveyor, but you don’t get to dictate the process

As referenced above, the outcome of the land survey will have holding in court.

This means that – even if you hire the land surveyor – the land surveyor doesn’t exactly answer to you.

Their job is ultimately dictated by history, science, and math.

Their interest isn’t in whether you want to build an extra square foot of yard onto your home addition.

They’ll use the existing historical data and markers to determine the precise measurements of your property and then record those with the county recorder’s office.

The surveyor’s description often also gets incorporated into the legal description of the deed or other legal documents.

Long story short, your land survey will become a matter of public record, and you don’t get to decide the information in that public record.

Your land surveyor is responsible for the document that he or she produces.

In fact, they could be sued if there’s a problem with it because it’s viewed as a profession that protects the welfare and public safety of residents.

Because they want it to be as objective and impartial as possible, don’t expect to hire someone who will survey in your favor.

When you enter the survey process, you’re taking what comes with it.

3. Land surveying requires a lot of work

While land surveying may appear easier, it requires significant diligence on part of the land surveyor.

These individuals manage the legal and historical implications of their work in addition to spending a lot of time walking your property on foot with markers.

This helps them determine the edges of your property.

Land surveying is a costly service and you’ll definitely pay for it, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

On the flip side, before you proceed, make sure that the work is really worth the price.

Because land surveys can get expensive, don’t proceed before you know it’s necessary.

If you’re not in dire need of the survey to settle a dispute or to put up a fence, then don’t pay upwards of $500 to have it done.

4. There are three different kinds of land surveyors

Not all land surveyors have the same process.

We’ll give you a quick overview of the different types of land surveyors and the basic processes they go through as they do their jobs.

bulletConstruction or engineering:

This type of surveyor will study the changes in property lines and identify the location of buildings and roads with exactness.

They may also survey road topography and grade or determine the appropriate depth for building foundations.

These kinds of surveyors are often used by civil engineers


This type of land surveyor will use satellite and aerial imaging to measure large portions of the Earth.

bulletBoundary or land:

This type of land surveyor will determine where the property lines are located.

This is often used when individuals are purchasing the property and want to know how far it extends, or when property owners are looking to add on or build on their property.

5. There are different types of boundary or land surveying

As stated above, there are three different types of land surveyors.

You’ll select your land surveyor based on why you need your land surveyed.

You’ll also select your type of survey.

There are seven different types of land surveys that can help you locate property lines, split your parcel, or prepare for a construction project.

Let’s take a look at each one.

bulletALTA survey

ALTA stands for American Land Title Association.

This type of survey is done when buying a home or an investment property.

A title company will typically require an ALTA survey before issuing title insurance.

Some refer to an ALTA survey as a mortgage survey as lenders will sometimes require them before providing financing.

bulletBoundary survey

A boundary survey is often used to determine the location of the property’s boundaries and corners.

If there are legal disputes, easements, or other issues with the land, a boundary survey can often solve these challenges.

Other times, buyers just like to keep a boundary survey for their records.

bulletLocation survey

 This is similar to a boundary survey, but will also include site improvements.

Real property owners often use a location survey when they’re seeking zoning permits.

This survey will find the location and size of improvements and measure the distance between them and the property lines.

bulletSubdivision survey

When owners are looking to subdivide their land into multiple lots, they’ll need a specific type of survey that is filed in the land records at the recorder’s office.

bulletSite-planning survey

This type of survey is typically used when applying for building permits.

It will help plan the development of site improvements.

The proposed improvement (building, etc.) will be drawn inside of the site-planning survey.

bulletConstruction survey

In this type of survey, the surveyor will stake out the location where the structures and improvements will be made.

This indicates to construction workers where building must take place (as well as the planned distances between improvements).

bulletTopographic survey

Topographical surveys are used by engineers and architects that are planning for site improvements because they locate natural and man-made features on the property.

These may include buildings, fences, ponds, rivers, trees, utilities, and elevations.

6. The GPS on your phone won’t do the job

Some landowners like the DIY approach.

However, if you think you can pull the property lines on your iPhone and plan your addition that way, then you could be setting yourself up for a dispute with your neighbors.

Modern GPS isn’t as good as what your surveyor will be using.

Land surveying utilizes a professional-grade GPS system that costs thousands of dollars (accurate to the centimeter!).

Most consumer-level GPS units are accurate to 15 or 20 feet — not the same whatsoever!

If you really want to do a “rough check” before investing in a land survey, then you can plot the boundary lines on an aerial photo like Google Earth or Bing or MapRight.

You can utilize the “use lines” as a guide.

Then plot the lines and use the photo scale to estimate acres.

After that, do what a land surveyor would do (without the fancy equipment) and walk the lines looking for old wire fences and rock-pile corners.

However, when in doubt, hire a land surveyor! 

7. The best way to find a land surveyor is through a referral

If you want the best chance of success with your land surveyor, then reach out for a recommendation.

You don’t want to search Google or select the first surveyor that you meet.

Get at least three different quotes and eliminate any lowballing outsiders.

If you’re getting quotes within the same range and another is absolutely low, then something is likely wrong with that.

Your land surveyor may not be familiar with the area, or they may be misleading you.

Either way, they’re inclined to make a mistake and you’ll want to steer clear.

As a word-of-mouth industry, have someone recommend a land surveyor that they’ve personally used.

It’ll yield a much more successful result!

8. Sometimes land surveyors have unique personalities

Land surveyors spend long days alone surveying other people’s property.

If you spent your days walking around the woods – never seeing another person – then you may not be the most social person either.

If your land surveyor is a bit quirky or unique, don’t worry about that.

This is typical when it comes to this profession.

9. A land survey is good for a decade

A land survey is considered to be good for 10 years because this is the time – according to the law – that a surveyor would be considered liable for it.

10. A property owner benefits from a land survey

As a property owner, land surveying helps protect your investment.

Understanding possible encroachments on your property – where your property lines and corners are – will give you the maximum information in case there are any disputes if you decide to build.

11. You can get a copy of a recorded land surveyor at the building department’s office or in the official records at the recorder’s office

If you’re looking to track down a survey that’s already been created, the building department’s office or the recorder’s office are great places to start.

In some places, you may also want to look at the local tax assessor’s office.

If you’re truly stumped, then a title company may be able to help you find a survey to your property.

This is because they often require an ATLA survey before they issue title insurance, so they will likely have a copy on file.

12. Land surveyors require licensing

Because land surveying is a technical process, each state creates its own requirements for who can conduct a survey.

This ensures that those doing so are qualified and make little errors throughout the process.

Check with your local state to learn more about the licensing process.

Here’s a general idea of what you should be looking for…

bulletRequired education – most surveyors will have a bachelor’s degree in surveying, mapping, or geomatics


bulletMinimum experience

Most states also require continued education to help surveyors maintain their licenses.

Make sure you always hire licensed surveyors!

 13. Land surveying requires certain tools

If you’ve ever seen a land surveyor at work, you’ve likely noted their interesting-looking equipment.

To survey a parcel of land, you’ll need a total station or a theodolite (an instrument with a rotating telescope for measuring horizontal and vertical angles) and a level for sight, laser, and water.

The theodolite is considered the ultimate surveying tool because it is used to measure vertical and horizontal angles between points.

Without it, your land surveyor won’t be able to get accurate and reliable results.

14. Land surveying can be expensive

Land surveyors can cost anywhere from $200 to $1000 depending on the number of acres you’re having surveyed, travel time to the property and the location of your property (state).

In many states, a land survey can only be done by a licensed Professional Land Surveyor.

The average national price is $508 while the typical range is anywhere from $345 to $675.

That said, it can be more or less costly depending on a variety of factors.

Visit here to learn more about what the cost could look like for you.

While most land surveyors will cost an average of about $500, keep in mind that ALTA surveys have a higher average cost.

This because of all the additional work that goes into researching documents and providing details.

You can pay within the range of $2,000 to $3,000 for an ALTA survey.

Final thoughts

When having your land surveyed, you’ll be provided with a survey report in the form of a map.

This will show the location of your parcel along with the property size and any visible improvements.

Having this information on record will allow you to locate any boundaries, structures, easements, setbacks, and potential encroachments on your property.

It can provide essential pieces of information that’ll stay in the public record for 10 years’ time.

This is an essential step if you’re looking to add a new fence, pool, or other addition.

Furthermore, your lender may require you to get a land surveyor.

Just remember, even though they’re expensive, land surveys can help you protect your investment.

Any questions? Please leave a comment on this blog post.

For more information on buying, selling, or investing in vacant land, check out our other resources below.

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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