Check out this phenomenal overview of Land Title Surveys written by a member of our judging panel, Gary Kent.
Gary is a professional surveyor with The Schneider Corporation in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is also a regular lecturer and frequent expert witness on a variety of survey-related topics including boundaries, Land Title Surveys and easements. Gary is chair of the ALTA and NSPS committees responsible for the ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey standards.
Do you have any other questions on Land Title Surveys? I'm speaking with Gary on Tuesday and would be happy to ask him your questions. Comment on this update with any questions before 9:00am PST on Tuesday February 7th.
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Land Title Surveys Explained
In order to really understand what a Land Title Survey is about, one needs to understand the land tenure system in the United States and the role of title insurance. That takes some time and effort, but the singular most important fact is that in the United States, there is no guarantee of ownership of real property. A deed is, in fact, not proof of your ownership of real property, it is only evidence that you might own it.
Overcoming this problem and being able to confidently buy real property, or to obtain a loan to buy or develop real property, requires some sort of assurance that one's investment is not at risk. The way that is accomplished in the United States is with title insurance.
There is not a bank in the United States that will lend money to purchase or develop real property unless it is provided a title policy in order to ensure that its investment (the real property collateral) is protected. In addition, lenders require that one of the standard exceptions to the coverage afforded by a title insurance policy - the "standard survey exception" - be deleted from their policy.
The exact wording of the standard survey exception varies, but an example is: an exception for any "Claims of parties in possession, boundary line disputes, overlaps, encroachments and any other matters not shown by the public records which would be disclosed by an accurate survey and inspection of the property."
This is a standard exception to title insurance coverage because of the myriad of potential problems that could be detrimental to the integrity of a property's title and that will remain completely unknown unless a Land Title Survey is performed.
When the title company is provided with an acceptable Land Title Survey, it will remove that standard "blanket" survey exception and write exceptions for the specific problems identified on the Land Title Survey that represent possible problems with the title. The buyer and lender are then on notice as to the specific title problems that may affect the property and that, therefore, the title policy will not cover.
In order for all of that to work, the title industry must be confident that surveyors will provide a survey that will disclose all of those potential title problems (to the extent that they can be observed by the surveyor). Hence, the Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys were developed (first in 1962 and revised 8 times since - most recently effective February 23, 2016).
The standards are jointly developed and adopted by the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). This joint effort is required to assure that the needs of the title industry are addressed while necessarily taking into account what it is possible to accomplish - at a reasonable cost and in an acceptable time frame - by virtue of the survey process.
Having provided the reader that necessary background, we can describe the process.
A Land Title Survey is first and foremost a boundary survey that includes a lot of requirements above and beyond just simply surveying the boundary. This is because of the need to also identify all of those potential title problems listed in the standard survey exception above.
The ALTA/NSPS requirements are therefore almost all aimed at having the surveyor collect and document data from the records and on the ground in order to support the needs of title companies when they are asked to insure title without the standard survey exception.
Achieving that end is, from the survey standpoint, a multi-part, multi-dimensional exercise.
First, there must be extensive research both into the public records and into relevant private records.
If the survey is of an existing parcel, it is called a "retracement" and the surveyor's job with respect to the boundary is to "follow in the footsteps" of the original surveyor of the parcel. Often, that original survey was decades or more in the past, and finding the relevant records may entail a lengthy search through public and quasi-public records, and what is sometimes a fruitless attempt to find information from other private surveyors relating to that original survey.
Once the necessary records have been located - or not - the survey process moves to the field investigation. A diligent search for original or subsequent survey markers is made including the controlling or reference corners upon which the boundary lines and corners are dependent.
Except when the property is a lot in a platted subdivision (and even often in that case also) those reference corners and lines are typically some distance from the property. In many cases, they may be up to a mile away. In addition, those reference corners are very frequently buried anywhere from a few inches to several feet beneath roadway pavement or under or around trees, fences, walls or buildings. The relevant evidence may also be very difficult to find and ascertain, like long-abandoned roads, railroads or canals upon which the corners and lines of the boundary are dependent.
Finding the relevant evidence in order that the surveyor can develop a defensible opinion as to the boundary's location is typically the most difficult and time-consuming part of the survey.
Once that field evidence is located and documented, the analysis of that evidence begins. Almost never is the evidence in perfect congruence with what the records say, and the surveyor must then run through an extensive iterative process of sorting through the evidence, weighing it, conducting many calculations to test it, and finally applying the appropriate boundary law principles to the evidence in order to arrive at the location that he or she believes best represents the boundary as originally established by that original surveyor.
In the process of collecting the field evidence of the boundary, the surveyor will also locate the many other features required by the ALTA/NSPS standards such as the building locations, access points, evidence of use of the property by others, possible encroachments, fences, drives, utility features, water features, parking lots, parking spaces, etc., etc.
All of that fieldwork is conducted using a wide variety of tools at the disposal of the modern surveyor. Field conditions and other factors, like the size if the property and the number and density of improvements, will typically dictate the appropriate tools. They may include electronic total stations, robotic total stations, magnetic locators, GPS, ground/penetrating radar, utility locate technologies, aerial mapping, aerial photography, remote sensing, laser scanners and unmanned aerial vehicles (aka "drones"). More mundane tools like shovels and pick axes are usually required because the evidence that needs to be found and located is frequently, if not usually, beneath the surface.
After the boundary corners and lines have been retraced to the satisfaction of the surveyor, the surveyor will return to the field to set or reset any missing corner markers.
Then the plat/map of the survey is prepared to document those boundaries and all of the located features. The plat/map is prepared using any of a number of computed aided drafting (CAD) programs like Autodesk's AutoCAD, or applications that run inside AutoCAD. There are a number of other popular drafting/computing softwares used by surveyors such as Carlson.
The drafting process can be very automated with metadata on field-collected features being used to automatically create linework, connect up the related lines, place the appropriate symbols and even label boundary lines. Of course, presenting all of that data in a legible, readily understood form necessarily takes some manual adjustments of labelling locations, etc.
The plat/map must also show any gaps or overlaps with adjoining properties as revealed in the records, and the location and extent of any easements identified in the title commitment.
There are many notes required on a Land Title Survey such as those related to the depicted easements (e.g., recording information, whether shown, and, if not, why not). Other notes include, but are not limited to, those identifying problems or ambiguities relating to the boundary, areas that were inaccessible, and water boundary boundaries.
If the surveyor deems it appropriate to prepare a new property description based on the results of the survey, that will be undertaken with great care given to not inadvertently creating new title problems or confusion as to the boundaries and corners. A new description may be written to indicate new corner markers that were set or to reflect higher precision in measurements and dimensioning than the old description did. It should be noted, however, that just because there are differences between measured and record dimensions that most assuredly does not mean the old description is bad and needs rewritten. Like boundary locations, legal description interpretation is a function of legal principles, not mathematics.
Once the plat/map has been completed and any and all issues related to boundaries and easements resolved, it is sent out for review and comment by the interested parties (title company, lender and client/buyer). Any comments received will be reviewed and addressed if necessary, and the final plat/map then signed and sealed by the professional surveyor and sent to the interested parties.
Depending on the size and location of the property, the complexity of - or problems with -the legal description, the number and clarity of easements, and the amount of improvements and utilities on the property, the fee for a Land Title Survey can run from perhaps $2,000 at the very low end, to several hundred thousand dollars at the high end. The effort could take anywhere from about a week to several months.