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Property Line Surveys

It's a common misnomer....people assume that in conducting a boundary survey, a land surveyor's task is to merely take the official property record and trace it out on the ground. Pretty much just a "connect the dots" sort of idea.

What actually happens is a lot more complex. The surveyor must gather many pieces of evidence - he must decipher historical deeds, search in the field for ancient original boundary markers, take into account lines of occupation such as walls and fences, and measure landmarks with the greatest of accuracy. As an expert in the location of real property rights, the land surveyor must weigh all available evidence with deliberation and care before finally issuing a well-reasoned professional judgment on the location of each and every property corner.

The role of the professional land surveyor is not well understood by the public. Here's some guidance on commonly held misconceptions:

Myths about what needs to be surveyed

    Myth #1 - "We need just one line surveyed." 
    Myth #2 - "We already know where the property lines are - we just need you to make them official. 
    Myth #3 - "A survey monument is there already. It's the property corner, right?"

Misconceptions about land survey fees

    Myth #4 - "The cost of a survey is relative to the size of the parcel."
    Myth #5 - "There is a standard going rate for a boundary survey."
    Myth #6 - "We just need a rough boundary survey for now. It doesn't need to be that accurate."

Misperceptions about the role of the Professional Land Surveyor

    Myth #7 - "As a surveyor, you will advocate for our position."
    Myth #8 - "You'll help us get as much land as possible."
    Myth #9 - "You guarantee your survey, right?" 

Confusion about easements, encroachments & ALTA Surveys

    Myth #10 - "It's just an easement."
    Myth #11 - "It's an encroachment!"
    Myth #12 - "We need an ALTA Survey."


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Meandering riparian water boundary
12 Myths About Land Surveys, Debunked
Highlights:

+  Myths about what needs to be surveyed
+  Misconceptions about land survey fees
+  Misperceptions about the role of the Professional Land Surveyor
+  Confusion about easements, encroachments & ALTA Surveys

Misconceptions about land survey fees

Myth #4 - "The cost of a survey is relative to the size of the parcel."

It's an understandable assumption...people presume that the cost of a land survey should relate to the size of the parcel of land and/or the number of corners it has. After all, land is sold by the square foot and acre.

But the reality is more complex. The fee for a boundary survey is impacted much more by the nature of the original deeds and maps, how long ago the land was partitioned, whether original monuments can be recovered, and a host of other factors that require a high level of professional judgment to resolve. The square footage of the land and/or the number of property corners is rarely a controlling consideration in determining the fee for a land survey.

Likewise, the cost of a topography survey is determined by many factors, including mapping scale, required resolution, terrain, density of improvements, visibility of the ground, and the intended use of the topographic data.

Myth #5 - "There is a standard going rate for a boundary survey."

Every parcel of land is unique and every property survey is one of a kind. A host of variables influence the time and cost of conducting a boundary survey. 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. Every land surveyor who is acting in a professional manner should tell you this.

Myth #6 - "We just need a rough boundary survey for now. It doesn't need to be that accurate."

This idea usually surfaces when folks are primarily focused on cost. There is no such thing as an approximate boundary survey. It's inevitable that additional parties will rely on our work - current adjoining land owners, for example, and future owners of the land.
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Myths about what needs to be surveyed

Myth #1 - "We need just one line surveyed."

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe".

John Muir was reflecting on the Sierra Nevada Mountains when he penned those immortal words, but what's true for nature applies to property boundaries too. Every parcel of land in California is inextricably linked to all the lands that surround it - no property sits like a remote atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

Our search for survey monuments and other field evidence invariably extends beyond the actual parcel of land we've been hired to survey. We need to fully understand how the surrounding neighborhood stitches together before we can reestablish individual property lines and corners.


Myth #2 - "We already know where the property lines are - we just need you to make them official."

You'd be surprised how many times we hear this. As humans, it's natural that we develop a sense of place, an abiding identity with our patch of terra firma. But a land surveyor's duty is to grasp the client's deed by the four corners and read what the legal description says. Our search for the facts sometimes leads to a location of the boundary lines that may be different than expected.

It's our responsibility to search for all the evidence impacting property rights, both our clients' rights and those of adjoiners. We weigh that information with great care before presenting our findings. After considering the unique facts surrounding each survey, we render a professional opinion regarding the location of the property boundaries.


Myth #3 - "A survey monument is there already. It's the property corner, right?"

We wouldn't rely on any landmark without fully researching its provenance and validity. Neither should you.

  •  Perhaps it was set to mark an adjoiner's land
  •  Perhaps the legal description in the adjoiner's deed clashes with yours.
  •  Perhaps it is merely a reference mark - set at some dimensional offset from an inaccessible corner.

  •  Perhaps its location doesn't fit with substantiated monuments in the vicinity.
  •  Perhaps the ground in the local area shifted abruptly.
  •  Perhaps the marker sits atop a wall or fence that has tilted over time.

  •  Perhaps it is a "no reference" monument with an undocumented pedigree.
  •  Perhaps it's not a survey monument at all, just a random item buried in the ground years ago.

We see these situations regularly. Don't rely on any unsubstantiated landmark. There simply is no substitute for retaining a professional land surveyor to conduct a thorough boundary retracement survey.

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Misperceptions about the role of the Professional Land Surveyor

Myth #7 - "As our surveyor, you will advocate for our position."

Clients hire us when they want to do something with the land - develop it, build on it, purchase it, or sell it. We enter into a contract together and establish a close client/consultant relationship. But the surveyor's role is not one of advocacy. As professional land surveyors, we have an inherent fiduciary duty to all the surrounding land owners impacted by our work. We are charged with the responsibility to safeguard the property rights in the land and to protect the public welfare of the people of California.

Myth #8 - "You'll help us get as much land as possible."

The intent of a property survey should never be to maximize square footage. The focus must be on interpreting the original intent of written deeds, following in the footsteps of prior surveyors, and identifying and respecting the bona fide property rights of land owners.

Land in California is valuable. And so is peace of mind. In providing boundary retracement services since 1982, we've developed a "30 year perspective" on the deep connections Californians have to their land. Our goal is to help our clients enjoy quiet ownership of the land; to derive maximum benefit from real property by understanding the limits of their land ownership.

Myth #9 - "You guarantee your survey."

Actually, no. Like any other professional, a doctor or lawyer, for example, a land surveyor issues an opinion after a careful gathering of the facts. Our work is the result of a process of deliberative investigation; you are retaining us to benefit from our professional judgment, not purchasing a tangible product that comes with a warranty.

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Confusion about easements, encroachments & ALTA Surveys

Myth #10 - "It's just an easement."

Easements are important non-possessory real property rights that are widely misunderstood and are overlooked far too often. In our 3 decades of surveying land in California, we've seen several projects get into serious trouble by ignoring the legitimate easement rights of others. See Survey Tales of Caution for a news account of how the City of Poway became enmeshed in a messy protracted legal battle when city staff thought they knew where their easement was.

We 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 may impact and/or benefit their project.

Myth #11 - "The property goes to the fence line."

Encroachment! Now there's a hot-button word. We humans are territorial animals, and nothing raises our hackles faster than the idea of someone fencing us in. We've seen a lot of unique situations in the field over the last 30 years at Bell Land Surveying. Buildings, walls and fences often get built over property lines, sometimes by accident, sometimes with the knowledge and agreement of adjoining land owners, and sometimes in an adversarial situation.

Real property ownership is fundamentally defined by a legal description in a written property deed. So moving a line of occupation on the ground, e.g. a fence line, does not in itself move the deed line in the written document.

Case law associated with real property rights, possession, prescriptive rights and statutes of limitations is complex, and disputes involving land have a way of getting heated. It's easy for adversarial parties to unwittingly slip down an expensive slope when seeking redress in the courts. But it doesn't have to be that way. At Bell Land Surveying, we urge impacted parties in a land dispute to collectively take a deep breath and to work together to find mutually satisfactory solutions.

Myth #12 - "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. But there is a common misnomer that this "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. They 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.

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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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