Land Surveys: A Real Estate Attorney’s Primer on the Types and Purposes

Law school doesn’t teach much about land surveys, which leaves many aspiring real estate attorneys in a quandary. Surveys often occupy the core of real estate transactions and disputes. In fact, surveys are central to MOST real estate matters, including land conveyances, boundary disputes, and property development. Yet most beginning attorneys lack even a basic understanding of the types of surveys. Despair not: this article provides an introduction to the varieties of surveys and their intended purposes.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF SURVEYS

Knowing the category and purpose of a survey can greatly increase the reader’s understanding. This is much the same as looking out an airline window: the area miles below can seem incomprehensible unless you have some idea of what to expect.

There are roughly four overarching categories of surveys: 1) boundary, 2) plat, 3) topographic, and 4) construction. Each has its own purpose as follows:

1. Boundary. Boundary surveys show the location of lots without dividing them into new properties. The most common subcategory is a ‘record of survey’, which is the variety found recorded with county auditor’s offices. Other subcategories include ‘right of way’ (road boundaries), ALTA / ACSM (surveys for land title policies), riparian (water boundaries), and boundary line adjustment.

2. Plat. Plats depict the division of properties. They in essence take one property and split it into two or more parts. For example, a plat might create a subdivision, or a ‘short plat’ might create a small subdivision. These types of surveys can also depict multiple properties which coexist as a single lot-a condominium ‘survey map and plan.’

3. Topographic. Topographic surveys show the “contours” of the land. The most basic and common “contour” is change in elevation, often draw as lines representative of two foot rises or drops. Other common contours include buildings, roads, utilities, waterways, and trees. As opposed to boundary surveys and plats, topographic surveys typically do not focus on lot lines, though boundary lines might be included for added perspective. A wetlands critical area survey is a good example of a topographic subcategory.

4. Construction. As the name suggests, construction surveys meet construction site and planning needs. They thus often show roads, sewer lines, elevation changes, storm drain sections, power lines, building dimensions, physical obstruction, and any other features about which builders should be cognizant. Consider them the survey equivalent to a building’s architectural drawings.

Before interpreting any survey, first identify its type and purpose. Your clients will thank you for it later.

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