When it comes to property lines, it might seem straightforward that what falls on your property is yours, and what’s on your neighbor’s side is theirs. But if you’ve ever reviewed property survey records, you know it’s not always that simple.
Sometimes what appears to be a minor discrepancy could prove to have disastrous consequences. That’s what happened to Andrew Herring. A few years ago, Herring and his wife bought a halfplex (one half of a duplex) in a Dallas suburb.
The couple did their due diligence and went through the standard process of getting a property survey done. But the survey overlooked the fact that about three feet of their property crossed over to a neighbor’s boundary line.
They discovered this after they closed on the property. Trying to resolve the issue turned into a massive headache.
The neighbor refused to sign the paperwork to make their property legal. And after several months of back and forth, the Herrings realized they would not get anywhere without taking legal action. They ultimately sold the property at a loss of about $30,000.
Herring’s woeful tale could have been avoided by looking more closely at the property survey. “Looking back, we should have done more careful due diligence before we purchased, said Herring.
“Even though the encroachment issue was on the survey, I didn’t catch it, and the title company didn’t either,” said Herring. “I now know how to check the legal records to see if a multi-family property was properly split into multiple units.”
As Herring’s experience shows, reviewing property survey records can prevent costly oversights. Let’s dig in more about what a property survey record is, why they’re important and how to go about finding them.
What is a property survey?
A property survey shows the exact layout of the subject property, explained N. Courtney Hollins, a real estate attorney at Dickinson Wright. It also sets the boundary lines of all improvements on the property, any setback lines and the exact locations of easements.
“Properly done, a survey should be based on a current title insurance commitment, and to a standard appropriate for applicable state law,” said Hollins. “It’s so a title insurance company can remove the ‘standard survey exception’ and otherwise insure in a way that’s appropriate for the particular property."
What doesn’t it cover? Well, it depends. The extent of the coverage hinges on the standard of the survey that’s being requested. Hollins also pointed out it’s important to understand that a property survey record isn’t title insurance. It’s not a legal document.
Why are property surveys important?
Besides settling painful, costly and time-consuming disputes such as the unfortunate one the Herrings endured, property surveys are important for a number of other reasons, explained Hollins.
For instance, they’re generally required in title insurance. They’re also used to figure out where the boundary lines of a property are. Another reason? They’re checked against the legal descriptions in deeds and mortgages to make sure the description of a property is accurate and complete.
And when you’re making improvements to a property, a property survey record shows whether those improvements are located within boundary and setback lines, and determines the locations of easements and their relations to improvements.
While property surveys are important and could help you prevent a dispute between you and your neighbors, they’re not always necessary in the homebuying process. While mortgage companies generally require you to conduct a property survey, if you’re buying a house with cash and aren’t taking out a loan, you have the option of not getting a survey. It’s also not usually required when you’re about to remodel your home or make changes to your property.
How to find property survey records
You can look up a property survey record in a number of ways:
Building inspector’s office
Your city’s building inspector’s office will have surveys on file. Start by looking around the website to see if you can search property survey records. Otherwise, call the office to inquire.
Your county clerk’s land records office records all documents that have to do with property transactions in the jurisdiction including a deed, mortgage or satisfaction of a mortgage.
These documents could span several decades or even farther back. If you’re having trouble finding the webpage, start by searching “land records division” or “property records” and the name of the county for that property’s location. The land records division might have a searchable online database.
State surveyors’ association
Reach out to your state surveyors’ association to see if you can obtain the record from the professional who conducted the survey. To get a record, you’ll first need to obtain the license number of the surveyor. Some association websites have a way you can look up a member’s license number.
To offer a title insurance policy, a title company usually has a copy of the property survey. You’ll want to reach out to the company that dealt with the title transfer when the property was sold. If they don’t have a copy on file, they might order one on your behalf for a small fee.
There are no property survey records for my home—now what?
If no property survey records exist, you’ll have to hire a professional surveyor. As Hollins explained, a surveyor who is licensed in the state where the property is located conducts the property survey.
A good one not only has experience, but specializes in the type of property you’d like surveyed. “It’s always best to use a surveyor who spends a good amount of his or her time doing surveys for similar types of properties,” said Hollins. You’ll also want to look for a surveyor familiar with the area.
To find one, you can search on your state’s surveyor’s association. Lawyers, brokers, and title insurance companies make good resources for potential referrals, added Hollins.
How much should you expect to pay? The cost depends on a number of factors:
- Equipment required.
- Availability of any existing survey records.
- Type of terrain.
- Ease of access to the property.
- Size, type and complexity of the property to be surveyed.
- Standard of survey requested.
- General area in which the property is located
- How familiar and knowledgeable the surveyor is of the area.
A surveyor might charge an hourly rate or per-project rate.
(Property) survey says…
A property survey record is important for several reasons: to obtain title issue when buying a property, and also for settling disputes or avoiding potential ones with a neighbor. Even when a property survey isn’t required during the sale of a property, it might be worthwhile to have one done.
“Too many people buy properties without a survey and without clearing title on their title insurance policies,” said Hollins. “When considering purchasing, improving or financing real property, a survey to a proper standard should be one of the first items obtained, along with a title insurance commitment.”