Land Survey FAQs

When is a survey important when remodeling a home?

  • The proposed remodel will need to comply with setback requirements – which may necessitate a survey to learn the true location of the existing house, as it relates to the property lines.
  • Also, agencies may require a height survey in hillside areas.
  • Other common reasons for remodel surveys include preparation of drainage, utility, or landscape plans.

Does a land survey affect the value of a home?

  • Yes. Having the property corners marked with permanent monuments accompanied by a recorded survey is a valuable asset to the property.
  • Issues may be disclosed which require action to protect property rights and value (these actions might not be demands on neighbors and can be as simple as sending a letter of revocable license).
  • Having the true property line established prior to building fences and walls near the property lines ensures the best use of the land.
  • A topographic survey may add value if additional development is considered, whether or not the development occurs.

When should a survey be conducted, before architecture design, or after, and why?

Always get the land survey before architectural design – so that the design professionals do not need to make assumptions – and then need to make costly revisions to the plans, or worse, incur stop work situations during the construction process.

What factors determine the cost of a boundary survey?

Many clients are surprised to learn that difficulty of terrain or the presence of trees, poison oak, and/or many structures are not the major factors affecting the fee. What most affects the cost are conflicting elements in legal descriptions and the availability of controlling survey monuments (any of the next three FAQ’s may be of further interest on the topic of cost).

My property is here. Why is my survey crew working over there?

The survey monuments which control the elements of the legal descriptions may be large distances from the client’s parcel. It is commonly required to measure the corners of sections, or one-mile squares, to properly locate a parcel as small as hundred feet or so on a side.

Does one go to school to learn Land Surveying?

  • While there are several colleges offering land survey curricula, many, if not most, licensed land surveyors have learned by experience.
  • There is a tough physical component to survey fieldwork: hiking difficult terrain while carrying expensive equipment, chiseling deep holes in the street for monuments, or digging in hard ground in confined areas for more monuments, pounding hundreds of stakes a day on a construction site with heavy equipment all around, dealing with insects, snakes, poison oak, heat/cold/rain/wind – for those reasons and more, it may be advisable to work on a survey crew before beginning a land surveying curriculum.
  • The State of California licensing board allows for experience only, or a combination of experience and formal education, but not formal education only.

How has technology affected land surveying?

  • Laser distance measuring, introduced many years ago, immediately reduced both survey time and the possibility of errors in measuring lines.
  • Later, the surveyors’ transit was replaced by the total station and data collector, which, when combined with an office computer, gave surveyors the ability to collect field information without cumbersome handwritten transcription into field books followed by error-prone keypunch data entry.
  • Finally, GPS technology freed surveyors from “line of sight” requirements and allowed great distances to be measured rapidly and precisely (please see the following question).
  • The flip side of the advantages of the newer technologies is that they are, many times over, more expensive than the old surveyor’s tape, transit, and plumb bob.

Do surveyors use GPS?

Yes. Measurements with GPS survey equipment can be accurate to within a centimeter, which is acceptable for many surveying applications. The limitations of GPS for surveyors include: interference from power lines and other sources, and lack of open access to the sky (usually tree canopies). Nevertheless, the use of GPS can be a powerful time saver when used with caution and knowledge of the pitfalls. On a predominantly GPS project, a good surveyor will combine some ground measurements with GPS measurements to verify results.

I don’t need to know exactly where my property line is. Can I simply be shown the approximate location?

  • It is illegal for a land surveyor to locate a property line without going through all of the steps to determine the exact and true line.
  • Besides, it’s not a good idea! You pay for something; in reality you get nothing. An approximate location is based on “hunches” and is not the role of a land surveyor.
  • One reason for the law against this is that approximate marks may be used by unwittingly by other “innocent parties”, including neighbors and succeeding property owners, as the true location.
  • Another reason is that a surveyor cannot know if the location is approximate without knowing the true location, which makes an argument for fraudulent misrepresentation by virtue of the fact that nothing is being approximated at all.

Why is land surveying considered an art as well as a science?

The artfulness of land surveying comes in the interpretation and application of legal principles when solving boundaries. In addition, methods of collecting information may vary. Surveyors may exhibit different styles on their recorded survey maps and topographic maps. I characterize Land Surveying as an art that uses scientific methods.

What should I look for when hiring a land surveyor; what should I be cautious of?

  • You should be interviewed by a State of California Licensed Land Surveyor. Feel free to ask for his or her license number.
  • The surveyor should take the time to understand your needs, and offer and explain options. Be cautious of internet marketed sites that provide fee quotes on line.
  • The land surveyor should sound professional, and provide you with a feeling of confidence in your choices.
  • You should be provided a clear and written proposal, containing the 5 legal elements of location, scope, fee, terms, and cancellation clause. The contract should include the surveyor’s license number.
  • You should be cautious of significantly lower fees. These surveys often lead to disaster.

What is the difference between a property corner, a survey monument, and a benchmark?

A property corner is a change in the direction of a property line. A survey monument marks a property corner or some other point not having to do with property lines – which may include markers of known elevations above sea level called benchmarks.

What is/are topos?

  • Topo is a short form of the word topography. Topography is the study of the shape of the earth’s surface. Land surveyors prepare topographic maps, which depict the ground elevation and the features on the ground. Those features are either natural or man-made. The man-made features are known as improvements.
  • The ground elevations may be depicted with contours, which are lines of continuous elevation; these are not “topos”, nor “topo lines.” Surveyors use the term “topo” when referring to topographic maps or topographic survey projects.
  • There are other articles on this site explaining the uses of topographic maps.

What are the legal implications of a land survey?

  • A boundary survey represents the opinion of the land surveyor. Only a court may actually determine the location of a line. The court may rely on the surveyor’s evidence or opinions.
  • A good land survey may be thought of as one which comes to the same conclusion that any other “good and prudent” surveyor, after a thorough search and examination of the available evidence, would agree with. In the more challenging boundary problems, there may be more than one “good” conclusion.
  • All of that said, a boundary survey is not binding on the parties affected by the location (see the following question).
  • Here is an important implication of a boundary survey: when the survey discloses an encroachment, being the use of one’s land by another, the parties having knowledge of the encroachment may need to protect their property rights. A licensed land surveyor acting professionally will advise the client how to proceed.

Do property lines move?

  • No. There is only one true location for a property line. Surveyor’s opinions may vary; courts may overrule each other (see the foregoing question).
  • A new property line may be created by lot line adjustment and may often be thought of as moving the whole line; in reality, a new line is created and an old line abandoned.

When did surveying start?

  • Surveying is referenced in the bible in Deuteronomy 27:17 – “Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.”
  • The Egyptians are known to have used land surveying to mark the maximum flood lines of the Nile to avoid development in areas in danger of flooding (I further offer that the pyramids may have been staked out by good construction surveyors, not aliens).
  • For me, land surveying started with my father, in a bean field in Newbury Park in 1966.
  • For the United States, see the following question…

What is the Public Lands Survey System?

  • Thomas Jefferson, himself a land surveyor prior to becoming president, conceptualized the Public Land Survey System, or PLSS, effecting it with the Land Ordinance of 1785, thereby creating a systematic and successful means of accounting for all of continental America west of the thirteen original colonies.
  • The basic unit is the section, which is a one-mile square, itself part of a township, which is a six-mile square (thirty-six sections).
  • The first Manual of Instructions for Surveyors was published in 1851, and many surveyors were hired by the federal government to survey the township and range lines of the townships, being true east-west and true north south lines. These surveys were conducted over many years, using astronomy to maintain true directions. A second wave of surveyors were sent to “breakdown” the townships into individual sections.
  • For all of the incredible achievement of that era, it is from the errors and blunders (and occasional fraud) of that era that some of today’s monumental boundary problems began.
  • Nevertheless, the system proved to be an incredible success and remains a model for other countries.
  • The history of one mile square sections can be appreciated by looking at a map of certain urban areas, including greater Los Angeles, for many of today’s primary roads follow old section lines.