Land surveying is a means of measuring land that is commonly used for planning new construction or fences, for establishing legal boundaries to settle boundary or title disputes, for satisfying insurance or mortgage requirements for title companies, or for subdividing land into plots. Professional land surveyors must complete a specific number of years of supervised fieldwork, pass a comprehensive national exam, and obtain a land surveyor's license in their state before they can offer their surveying services to the public. Land surveys, when properly registered with the appropriate county offices, are legally recognized documents that hold weight in court, real estate sales and other legal matters. Because significant money and legal decisions can depend on the results of a land survey, it is important that the land surveyor you hire is in good standing with the community and has their license and continuing education up to date.
People commonly ask land surveyors or property surveyors to help mark property corners and boundary lines, set landmarks, and provide surveying maps and CAD drawings. Land to be surveyed can be any size, from under 5,000 square feet to five acres or more. A property's zoning type may be residential, commercial, industrial or agricultural and can be set in an urban, rural or suburban area. Some of the most common types of land surveying services include location drawings and boundary surveys. Of the three, typically the least expensive of these is the location drawing, while the most expensive is usually the ALTA/ACSM survey.
There are multiple areas of specialty for surveyors, including boundary or land surveying, engineering or construction surveying, geodetic surveying, forensic surveying, marine or hydrographic surveying, or mine surveying. One of the most common demands for surveying is for residential or small business purposes such as a property sale, which can be performed by a boundary or land surveyor. According to the United States Department of Labor, "Boundary or land surveyors determine the legal property lines and help determine the exact locations of real estate and construction projects."
Here are some of the most popular requests for land surveying services:
- Location drawing: This is the process of mapping a real property and determining physical improvements on the property and property boundaries, within one foot of accuracy on each side. The location drawing is not a legal survey.
- Boundary survey: More comprehensive (and more expensive) than a location drawing, a boundary survey marks the boundary lines of a property by proving those boundaries against the recorded plot. New markers may be installed as needed. The process takes more time in research and in the field. Boundary surveys claim to be accurate within fractions of one inch and are often used for legal descriptions.
- ALTA/ACSM survey: This survey is often required when buying or selling commercial property, when buying vacant land to build on, or when seeking as much detailed information on a piece of land as possible. An ALTA/ACSM survey includes all boundaries, improvements, structures, easements and more. ALTA/ACSM stands for American Land Title Association/American Congress of Surveying and Mapping, which means the survey adheres to strict standards and will provide you with the strongest legal backing. This more stringent survey costs more than a boundary survey.
There are many reasons to invest in a land survey. If you are buying new property, the National Society of Professional Surveyors recommends you get a land title survey, also called an ALTA/ACSM survey. Once you buy a property, you become responsible for any discrepancies in the title and boundaries — even if they have been present for decades — and may be forced to remove structures and relinquish rights to what you thought was part of your property. A boundary or ALTA/ACSM survey lets you confirm the location of your property lines before you do new construction, so you don't spend your money installing a new wood fence two feet over your property line that you'll have to spend more money to remove. A boundary or ALTA/ACSM survey can also indicate access to water, trees and other natural resources, and determine the location of any easements and encroachments on property you own or intend to buy. Easements and encroachments are sites where people can legally pass through or use your land — even without your permission. Your mortgage lender may require a land survey if you are buying an empty lot, to ensure that their loan isn't based on an inaccurate deed or title. A boundary land survey, construction survey or site planning survey helps you avoid unpleasant surprises. It's important to talk with a professional survey company about the property you intend to buy or your intentions with your existing property so they can guide you to the appropriate type of survey for your needs.
Because each property is unique, land surveying costs will vary. Many factors affect how much you'll pay. Natural considerations include topographic obstacles, or how vegetation affects the accessibility of your property. It stands to reason that a flat, cleared lot will be easier (and less expensive) to survey than an overgrown piece of swamp land rife with trees, vines and wildlife. Time of year can also affect price, as wintry or rainy weather can hinder the surveying process, resulting in a higher labor cost. The surveying methods used, the type of survey you want, and the level of detail of your survey will also affect cost. Other factors that influence cost may include the property title, previous surveys and jurisdiction.
If you're ready to have your land surveyed for peace of mind, for sound investment or for construction, here are the cost factors to consider.
Per foot or square footage
If you need a boundary survey for a large property of five or more acres, your land surveying company may quote the job by linear foot. The price per foot can vary greatly, depending on terrain, vegetation density, quality of available title information and more. Your survey company will talk pricing with you before beginning the job so you can know what to expect. They will often be able to give you a quicker and more accurate quote if you have access to the deed and title. Land surveying companies may have a price range for doing specific types and sizes of jobs. For example, The Land Consultants, LLC in Jasper, Tennessee, charges 50 cents to 70 cents per foot for surveying large boundary areas.
Surveying for fences
The price per foot for larger boundary surveys can be higher if the property owner is building a fence and needs surveyors to place stakes at intervals along the property line, which requires more time and labor than typical boundary surveying.
A boundary survey or an ALTA/ACSM survey of your land is like a physical biography of your property. Your title and deed may state your property lines, physical improvements and easements in one way, but the land surveyor's job is to test that current information against historical information and facts from your actual property. Before the land surveyor even begins measuring your land and noting or confirming physical improvements, they spend time in the archives researching your property's history, including previous deeds and plats for your property as well as for surrounding properties. Physical evidence of property lines (iron stakes, fence lines, walls) is carefully compared with data and records from the courthouse as part of the compilation of the survey drawing. The amount of time these efforts take affects the overall cost for land surveying.
When you have a land surveyor do a boundary survey for you, all you may consider is the time they spend researching, measuring and drawing, but much more goes into their ability to perform your survey. Land surveying equipment is expensive to purchase and maintain. According to The Land Consultants, LLC, equipment must be consistently calibrated to achieve the accuracies required by the state, and must be operated by licensed surveyors. Equipment commonly used by land surveyors can include levels, transit levels, GPS equipment, measuring tools, surveying tripods and much more. In addition, specialized technicians use survey software and CAD programs to document your property survey. These operating expenses affect the overall cost of services. Another cost factor is the cost to do business in any given region. Your land surveying company must incorporate not only the ongoing cost of their tools into their rates, but the cost of insurance, marketing, company vehicles, employee labor and more.
Minimum service fee
Some surveying companies charge a minimum service fee to cover employee time, travel, and the effort of transporting surveying gear out to the site. For example, The Land Consultants, LLC charges a $650 minimum for land surveying, even for a lot under one acre in a platted (mapped) subdivision. The $650 price could include setting property lines, marking property corners with survey flags, performing limited courthouse research, and providing a certified, stamped survey drawing at the end. Costs can increase for the same job and lot size if the property is difficult to navigate because of overgrown vegetation or the property owner asks the surveyor to place stakes for fencing.
Many land surveying companies offer additional services beyond the basic measurement of land. Homeowners in flood-prone areas who wish to apply for flood insurance will need an elevation survey to determine the property's Base Flood elevation (BFE), which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines as "the computed elevation to which floodwater is anticipated to rise during the base flood. Base Flood Elevations (BFEs) are shown on Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) and on the flood profiles. The BFE is the regulatory requirement for the elevation or floodproofing of structures. The relationship between the BFE and a structure's elevation determines the flood insurance premium." Many companies, such as The Land Consultants, LLC, offer FEMA elevation certificates that you can use to prove your eligibility for flood insurance or lower insurance premiums or your compliance with floodplain management requirements for new construction. The average price from The Land Consultants, LLC for a FEMA elevation certificate is $575. Surveying companies may offer discounts if you opt to have more than one survey done, so always ask about pricing options.
What happens during a land survey
When you hire a land surveyor, their work begins before a surveyor ever arrives at your property with their surveying equipment to take measurements. Start by providing the surveyor with a current copy of your property deed and title, which will save them research time. The licensed pro will research your deed and property history using public records and other resources; if you don't have current deed and title information, the surveyor will spend additional research time to confirm title and ownership, which will add to your costs. Keep in mind that you cannot have a land survey done that will legally hold weight in a court ruling or real estate transaction unless you are the real property owner and hold the title in your name. The power of a boundary survey or an ALTA/ACSM survey is that it relies on historical evidence (not just your current title and deed) in conjunction with existing physical evidence to prove the boundaries and locations for your property. After researching the history of your property, your land surveyor will perform fieldwork at your location. Using their specialized equipment, they will measure the property, including all physical improvements, and note any relevant physical landmarks. Boundaries are marked with iron rods or wooden stakes; discuss with your land surveyor which markers you prefer, keeping in mind that iron markers may cost more than flags or wood posts. The field measurements and observations are then compared with the surveyor's research to create a map or plan of your property.
How to hire a land surveyor
You may only need land surveying done once or twice in your lifetime, so it's important to find a company that you trust. A reliable land survey that can be used as a legal document is probably worth the investment you'll make; this is not the place to cut corners financially. You must be the legal owner and deed holder of the property you'd like surveyed, and you must have access to the deed. When looking to hire a land surveyor, read reviews from past customers and make sure they have happy clients who have shared positive experiences. A bad review doesn't mean a company is not good, but the way that a company responds to a negative review can tell you a lot about how they would resolve any confusion or conflicts that could come up in your survey.
After identifying several land surveying companies you believe will be a good fit, determine whether the land surveyor is legitimate. A land surveyor must have a license to practice if they provide this service anywhere in the United States or its territories. Verify that the pro's license is valid and that they are current with their continuing education requirements, which give you assurance that their techniques and knowledge are up to date. After you have determined the land surveyor is right for the job, contact them to discuss your surveying needs. Make sure you have your deed on hand, as the land surveyor will ask for information from it to help determine project cost.
When hiring a land surveyor, look for someone who communicates well and sets clear expectations for pricing, project scope and deadline. Surveyors often break down costs to show travel charges, survey crew time and drafting time so it is clear what you are paying for. You will want to have everything in writing, including confirmation that the survey and boundary lines will be registered with the county. This part is important, because unless your survey is on record, no one but you will know the details of your property boundaries. Once everything is agreed upon, the land surveyor can begin work. Depending on the scope of your project, and whether you are having a location drawing or a detailed ALTA/ACSM survey, the project could take anywhere from one day to several weeks.
Professional requirements of a land surveyor
Because major financial and environmental decisions are made based on land surveys, professional surveyors must be well-trained and properly prepared before they can begin providing services to the public. In all parts of the United States, surveyors must be licensed before they can certify legal documents that show property lines or determine proper markings on construction projects. According to the United States Department of Labor, "most states require approximately 4 years of work experience and training under a licensed surveyor after obtaining a bachelor's degree. Other states may allow substituting more years of work experience and supervised training under a licensed surveyor in place of education." Once this supervised field training has been completed, prospective land surveyors must pass a Principles and Practice of Surveying (PS) exam. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) is the governing body that tests land surveyors and issues licenses. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, prospective land surveyors must complete these four steps to pass the PS exam through the NCEES:
- Complete the level of education required in your state
- Pass the Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) exam
- Gain sufficient work experience under a licensed surveyor
- Pass the Principles and Practice of Surveying (PS) exam
You can verify your land surveyor's current license via your state's licensing board. Each state will have its own online portal to verify status. For example, California has its own online license search, as does New Hampshire. The state licensing board will also show whether any consumer complaints have been made against the land surveyor. Unlike a home remodel or other project that requires a lot of your interaction, once you have hired the land surveyor, your job is to sit back and wait for the results, and then make sure the boundaries are registered with the county once the project is complete.
- Read client reviews and follow up with references to make sure you're choosing the right land surveyor for your project. For more, check out these tips for smart hiring.