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Property Line Surveys


Property line surveys

    1. What is a property line survey?
    2. Property line survey, boundary survey, retracement survey - what's the difference?
    3. How do you conduct the property line survey?
    4. Is a property line survey always required?
    5. Isn't there an official land database that prescribes the location of property lines?

Hiring a land surveyor

    6. When should we hire a land surveyor?
    7. How do we retain you?
    8. What will you ask from us?
    9. How much does a boundary survey cost?
  10. How long does it take to complete a boundary survey?

Property deeds & dimensions

   11. Will the dimensions of the property change?
   12. Why are legal descriptions in property deeds so complex?

ALTA Surveys | easements | encroachments

   13. Do we need an ALTA Survey?
   14. What about easements - should they be located?
   15. What about encroachments - will they be investigated?

Monuments & corners

   16. What is a property corner?
   17. What is a survey monument?
   18. Why is it important to search for the original monuments?
   19. Will you set new monuments at the corners?

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Fence following old metes and bounds legal description
Answers to Boundary Survey FAQ's
Highlights:

+  Straight talk on property line surveys and ALTA Surveys
+  Boundary surveys | Hiring a land surveyor | Land survey costs
+  Due diligence | Mapping easements and encroachments can reduce risk exposure
Hiring a land surveyor

6. When should we hire a land surveyor?

It's best to get a competent land surveyor on board at the earliest stages of planning your project. The surveyor can help identify existing site conditions that may have a significant impact on your use of the land. 
Property line surveys 

1. What is a property line survey?

A property line survey is conducted to establish the location on the ground of bona fide property rights. The land surveyor conducts his work by assembling deed conveyances for the property and searching in the field for original survey monuments set by prior surveys. The property line survey is the basis for validating the extent of ownership and the dimensions of a parcel of land. 


2. "Property line survey", "boundary survey", "retracement survey" - what's the difference?

Whether you call it a boundary survey, a boundary retracement survey, a boundary reestablishment survey, a dependent resurvey, or simply "staking out the property line", a property line survey is conducted to establish property lines and boundaries of real property on the ground. While there are subtle technical differences between these types of surveys, the general public may consider them synonymous terms in most situations.


3. How do you conduct the property line survey?

We conduct our work by reviewing a current title report for the property, examining grant deeds of the subject parcel of land and those of adjoining properties, analyzing metes and bounds legal descriptions, researching the public record, scrutinizing historical maps, and studying relevant sources of documentary evidence. In the field, we search for original property monuments and measure their positions on the face of the earth with great accuracy. We take special note of:

    a) Material evidence of physical change.
    b) Material discrepancies with record information.
    c) Evidence that by reasonable analysis might result in materially alternate positions of lines or points.

Once all the information has been gathered in the field, we conduct a rigorous analysis of the boundary. We weigh the discovered evidence by evaluating the location of existing survey monuments against record data disclosed in the deeds and maps of record, while also taking into consideration local standards of practice, established case law and California statutory law. After considering the unique facts surrounding each survey, we render a professional opinion regarding the location of the boundaries of the property. That may sound like a lot of exacting work. It is.
Property deeds & dimensions

11. Will the dimensions of the property change?

Yes, almost certainly. It's common (to be expected, actually) that a diligent boundary retracement survey will return dimensions that are different from those disclosed in the deeds and maps of record. These updated measurements are inherent to the system, a necessary outcome of our cadastral system's concept of recognizing the legal authority of the original monuments that were set during the initial survey.

Professional land surveyors regularly encounter measurements between monuments that differ from those shown in the old records. Excesses and deficiencies in distances and angles are to be expected. Sometimes the surveyor must contend with significant gaps and/or overlaps between parcels, especially when senior/junior title rights were created by metes and bounds legal descriptions. 


12. Why are legal descriptions in property deeds so complex?

The language of metes and bounds legal descriptions may seem arcane, but a well written legal description is a masterpiece of reasoned logic. One secret for success is to gather in hand all the deeds and maps cited in the document. With a close read, you'll notice that the referenced deeds and maps probably refer to additional underlying deeds and maps. And when you research those additional deeds and maps you may notice that they in turn reference.... well, you get the picture.
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ALTA Surveys | easements | encroachments

13. Do we need an ALTA Survey?

If a lender will be participating in your project, and they require a specialized title policy, then you may well need an ALTA Survey (aka ALTA/ACSM Survey). But there is a common misnomer that this so-called "Cadillac of surveys" is required for every project. ALTA Surveys are highly customized work products that we issue in conjunction with a client procuring an extended coverage title policy to provide additional insurance on the project.

ALTA Surveys are designed to satisfy the needs of lenders, corporations and title companies when dealing with valuable commercial properties. Each survey is a unique blend of standardized specifications coupled with several optional items. If you think you need an ALTA Survey, please call us to discuss your specific needs.


14. What about easements - should they be located?

Easements are important non-possessory real property rights that too often get overlooked. Determining the location of easements on the ground can be a challenge - historically, legal descriptions for easements were often written with less than adequate care. In our 30 years of surveying land in California, we've observed several high profile projects (none of ours!) that got into serious trouble by ignoring the legitimate easement rights of others. We usually advise our clients to make the relatively small investment of acquiring an updated title policy, and to retain us to investigate the location of easements that impact and/or benefit the project.


15. What about encroachments - will they be investigated?

An encroachment is generally defined as an unlawful and adverse intrusion within the boundary of a property. Examples can include cultivation of the soil, enclosure by fence, the construction of improvements, the planting of trees, and the existence of underground substructures, to name just a few. These physical elements may extend from adjoining lands onto the subject property, or vice versa.

The need to understand the relationship between real property rights versus how the land is being used and occupied is one of the primary drivers for conducting a property line survey. In some cases, the land surveyor may need to evaluate the location of improvements as possible evidence that might result in materially alternate positions of lines or points. The extent to which encroachments are measured and mapped on a project will depend upon the overall agreed scope of work. It's a good idea to have a detailed discussion about the possibility of encroachments and their potential impact on the project prior to commencement of the survey work.

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Monuments & corners

16. What is a property corner?

A property corner is the common end of two survey lines, or an angle point made by two boundary lines. The concept of a property corner is a construct in envisioning property rights. It should not be confused with a survey monument, which is a physical tangible marker, the actual evidence of the corner's location on the ground.


17. What is a survey monument?

A survey monument is a natural or artificial object that is fixed permanently in land and referred to in a legal description or map identifying the land. A monument is the physical tangible marker of the location of a boundary, corner or other survey point. It is something you can see or touch. An example of a "natural" monument might be the bottom of an arroyo, or the shoreline of a lake. "Artificial" boundary monuments are generally manmade and come in all sizes and shapes. Examples might include an original stone with chiseled markings, a land surveyor's tag drilled into a sidewalk, a buried iron pipe, or a brass marker imbedded in concrete. See Monument Preservation for additional information.


18. Why is it important to search for the original monuments?

In the United States, statutory law and case law have both embraced the precept of "following in the footsteps of the original surveyor", an elegant idea promoted by Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries. Enlightened and forward-thinking, our third president established the policy that a monument placed in the ground during the establishment of the original public land survey system (the PLSS) would forever hold as paramount evidence of the property corner, regardless of subsequent refinements in measurement. It was eminently practical; an inspired concept that has stood the test of time.


19. Will you set new monuments at the corners?

Much depends on our findings and the dynamics of the project - we'll craft a plan that makes sense for your situation. Setting monuments might be premature if excavations for new retaining walls, for example, would soon destroy them. We also try to avoid contributing to a "pin-cushion" effect where multiple survey monuments in the field end up sowing confusion in the minds of the public.
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4. Is a property line survey always required?

Not always. The boundary lines of a subject property are usually established when development is contemplated. In a few situations, determining the location of the perimeter property lines might be of small benefit. Determining the location of a new science building deep in the interior of a large college campus, for example, might not require the need to survey the property boundaries along the campus perimeter.

But exercise caution - some situations may still call for determining the location of the exterior property lines. Legal descriptions for easements, which are certain property rights in land held by others, are generally tied to property lines. And utility provider records depicting locations of buried utility infrastructure are often dimensioned from street right-of-way lines. Obviously, a property survey should always be conducted whenever new construction is contemplated close to adjoining parcels of land.
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5. Isn't there an official land database that prescribes the location of property lines?

In a word, no. Of course, written documents such as deeds and maps get recorded at the county recorder's office, but there is no master blueprint that maps out the location of property boundary lines. It's important to realize that the legal status of property rights in California accumulated gradually over the last 160 years since statehood. Our land tenure system of written deeds and maps allowed great latitude in the partitioning of land. As a consequence, it's not unusual for the legal description for a parcel of land to be in conflict with the legal descriptions of adjoining lands.

It takes rigorous analysis of many pieces of evidence to conduct a boundary retracement survey - deciphering ancient deeds, searching in the field for original historic property monuments, observing lines of occupation such as walls and fences, and sometimes gathering oral testimony. All that evidence must be weighed carefully with deliberative professional judgment before the location of a property line or corner can be established on the ground.

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When getting a land surveyor involved early made a difference:

We were retained to conduct a boundary and topographic survey in Pasadena, California for the design of a new employee credit union. The credit union was seeking approval by the City of Pasadena to build an underground parking structure that would extend to the rear corners of the parcel.

In helping the credit union conduct due diligence for the project, we discovered underground high-voltage power lines encroaching into a considerable portion of the site. The cost to relocate the electrical conduits was determined to be prohibitive, "a deal breaker", so the project architect had to go back to the drawing board and significantly revise the building layout. Fortunately for our client, they retained us at an early stage before expending significant funds on the project.

Our services - a boundary retracement survey, topographic mapping, researching utility records, subsurface investigation in the field, and analysis of easement deeds - were key to identifying the encroachment. The credit union was very pleased that they had hired us early in the development process. They were able to modify the architectural site plan and proceed smoothly with the project.

7. How do we retain you?

The first step is to give us a call to discuss your particular needs and to identify a custom plan of action. We'll work with you to fully understand the nature of your project, develop a detailed scope of work, establish a budget commensurate with the quality of professional service we provide, and set a timeline to accomplish the work. We'll enter into a professional services agreement, and keep you informed of our progress at every step of the way.


8. What will you ask from us?

First and foremost, we ask that you be an engaged partner in the process. We can help and advise you best if we fully understand your long-term needs and the big picture for your project. That requires an investment of time and a commitment on both our parts to work together as client and consultant. We've helped our client's enjoy impressive business results when all parties are pulling together to make the project a success.

We'll also ask you to provide copies of any documentation you may have for the site. That could include title reports, deeds, prior surveys, utility reference drawings, "as-built" drawings, architectural plans, local agency determinations, or existing correspondence about the project. Of course, we'll help you identify those items and can assist in rounding them up from various outside sources. The more informed we are about the land and your project, the more effective and efficient we can be at providing our professional services.

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9. How much does a boundary survey cost?

Many factors influence the cost of a boundary survey. We'll be glad to meet with you to develop a scope of services, a schedule of fees, a budget estimate, and a project schedule that will fit your needs. We'll need to have an in-depth conversation with you about the project before establishing a budget estimate.

What we can tell you at this point is that reputable land surveyors who do professional-quality work are not low cost providers. We take our responsibilities seriously and the quality of our work is a reflection of that. See Weigh Quality vs. Cost.

If qualificationscompetence and previous performance are driving your selection process, then Bell Land Surveying may be a good fit for you. If cost is your primary concern, we are probably not the firm for you. We don't compete on price to win business. And we never compromise our integrity by matching a competitor's lower fees. That's considered unprofessional and unethical.


10. How long does it take to complete a boundary survey?

Every boundary survey is distinctive. When we embark on a boundary investigation, we don't know where our search for evidence will lead, what our findings will be, or how much time and expense will be incurred to complete the survey. We're not unique in this - every land surveyor who practices in a professional and responsible manner will be up front about the uncertainties. A guarantee of a quick boundary survey should serve as a warning.

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Our Story
Our Clients
Selecting a Surveyor
Land Survey Info
When You Retain Us
Property Line Surveys

​About the Author:

Douglas Bell, PLS, is a Professional Land Surveyor licensed in four western states, and is a CFedS, a BLM Certified Federal Land Surveyor. He provides a range of property line, ALTA, boundary survey, topographic mapping, easement determination, encroachment investigation, and utility location services.

Mr. Bell provides land surveying services to engineers, architects, attorneys, and other land professionals in the private and public sectors in Southern California, primarily in Los Angeles County, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange County. He can be reached via email: AskDoug@Bell-Land-Surveying.com.

25 year member of the California Land Surveyors Association
Doug Bell is a CFedS - a Certified Federal Surveyor
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Diamond Bar, California, 91765
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Douglas Bell - Los Angeles | Pasadena | Orange County Land Surveyor
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