- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

When George Washington began his career as a surveyor in the 1740s, he never would have been able to anticipate the value achieved in the 21st century of some of the very land he traveled. Although the process of surveying land has altered through the centuries, the basic benefit of researching property remains unchanged. Surveys are meant to identify the boundaries of property so that consumers can confidently claim ownership.

Buyers of a new or resale home are commonly handed a plat, or drawing of the property, by their Realtor. The accuracy of the plat depends on where it originated.

“When a buyer is handed a plat, they need to look at it carefully to determine what it really is,” says Jim Savitz, an attorney with Village Settlements Inc. in Gaithersburg and Potomac.

“If it is the subdivision plat provided by the builder, it basically shows you fictional property lines that have nothing to do with the reality on the ground,” Mr. Savitz says. “If it is a recent, accurate house-location survey belonging to the current owners, then it’s useful to get an idea of the property lines, but there’s still no guarantee that it’s accurate unless it has a stamp on it that states it is a boundary survey.”

In addition to the subdivision plat provided by a builder, there are two types of surveys commonly conducted on residential property. There are substantial differences between these two types of surveys.

A house-location survey, also known as a location drawing, according to the Maryland surveyor’s disclosure forms, will show the significant buildings, structures and other improvements to a property in their approximate relationship to the apparent property lines reflected in the deed, based on the field measurements taken by the surveyor along with any other evidence considered by the surveyor. A house-location survey or a location drawing is not certified by the surveyor or engineer.

A boundary survey or a stake survey includes a location drawing and will identify property boundary lines. Property boundary corners will be marked, and this type of survey can be used for erecting fences, a garage or other improvements on the property. The survey company will certify this type of survey and is liable for its work.

Government land records are not necessarily accurate depictions of land use but represent a master plan for a neighborhood and can provide information about restrictions on a property.

“County land records usually show the original grid planned for a subdivision, which will show property lines and streets but not the actual houses,” says attorney David Modell with the Law Offices of David P. Modell in Bethesda.

“These records won’t show if someone bought extra land and then built their house in a different location on that land, or subdivided it later with additional homes,” Mr. Modell says.

House-location surveys are typically done each time a property transfers from one owner to the next as a condition of title insurance.

“Most standard title-insurance policies say that they will indemnify the lender for the loss of property except for a loss that would have been revealed by a recent survey,” says John Veatch, owner of Certified Real Estate Services in Reston.

“The title company can give a lender the assurance of what’s in the existing land records, and then they hire a survey company to give a physical picture of the property,” Mr. Veatch says. “The standard practice in the D.C. area, though, is not to actually establish the boundaries of a property but to give a picture of what has been bought, which delineates what’s in the land records and defined in the plat.”

Current laws in Virginia, Maryland and the District all similarly do not require a boundary survey each time a property transfers from one owner to another.

“Many, many states do require an actual boundary survey to be done, so people from out of state often do not understand that the survey they have paid for is not an actual, certified boundary survey,” Mr. Veatch says. “They are sometimes surprised that the survey they paid for doesn’t tell them, ‘This is my corner; that’s my corner’; and so on.”

Lenders often choose to waive the requirement for a house-location survey for title-insurance purposes, particularly if one has been done in recent years for a previous property transfer.

Lenders need title insurance so that, if they are forced to foreclose on the property in the future, they can prove that the title legally belongs to the owners.

Future disputes over a small portion of a land on the border of the property would not be likely to affect the overall value of the property, so this type of issue is of lesser concern to the lender.

“If a problem arises later, such as a neighbor placing a fence two feet into the property and a dispute occurring, the owner will be the one with a greater problem than the lender,” Mr. Modell says.

“If the neighbor wins the dispute, the owners will not have lost total title to their property, just title to the two feet along the edge of their land,” he says. “The lender doesn’t get stuck at all by this, although it might have been resolved by a boundary survey done at the time of settlement. The owner is the only one who really gets stuck in a situation like this, because they have lost that piece of land that they thought they owned, plus they have likely had to pay court fees or attorney fees or an additional survey during the dispute.”

Title insurance is usually purchased at settlement by home buyers to cover themselves in the event of a title dispute in addition to the title insurance purchased for the lender.

“If the title insurance is insuring the mortgage company, the required title survey may or may not be done,” Mr. Veatch says, “but if the homeowner is buying title insurance, then the survey is almost always required. In the D.C. area, I’ve found very few instances when property is transferred without the owners also purchasing title insurance.”

In most cases, Realtors, settlement attorneys or title companies will choose a company to handle the survey rather than individual purchasers choosing their own company and the type of survey they want done.

“We almost never deal with homeowners directly,” Mr. Veatch says. “Unfortunately, this means we don’t get to have the conversation that explains the difference between the usual survey and a boundary survey, which actually marks the corners of the land and certifies the accuracy of the survey.”

Mr. Savitz says the survey is part of what the title company should handle.

“Most title companies have an arrangement with survey companies who charge dramatically less to do the surveys than they would charge an individual requesting a survey,” Mr. Savitz says. “A typical house-location survey should cost between $150 and $250. A boundary survey could cost double to triple that amount, anywhere from $300 to $750 or more.”

Mr. Veatch estimates that prices for boundary surveys done for an individual customer vary as much as home prices in this area and could cost anywhere from $350 for a 20-foot-wide town-home lot to $5,000 for a 10-acre parcel of land with irregular corners to mark.

Many good-faith estimates of settlement costs list a standard house-location survey at $350.

“The key for general settlements is that a house-location survey, even as unsophisticated as it is, will find most encroachments on a property,” Mr. Savitz says. “If you are building a fence and have a recent survey which was done when you bought your house, then you can probably rely on that survey. But if you want to be absolutely certain of your property lines, then you have to hire someone to do a boundary survey.”

Consumers can opt to have the more accurate boundary survey done rather than a house-location survey when they purchase a home.

“The best survey anyone can get is a boundary or stake survey, which actually marks the corners of the property with a piece of steel set into the ground with a piece of wood as a visual above-ground marker,” Mr. Modell says.

“The less expensive option, though, is OK,” he says, “as long as there are no fence issues or other apparent structures which could be encroaching on the property or the right of way. Ideally, everyone would get the best survey available, though, because there may be problems for subsequent owners if the boundaries of a property are not properly marked.”

In addition to having a survey done at the time of a transfer of property, homeowners often choose to have a survey done when they decide to build a fence or add a garage or shed or an addition to their property.

Sometimes owners opt for a survey when their neighbors undertake such a project and there is a concern about where the property boundaries lie.

When conflicts arise between neighboring owners over boundaries, a boundary survey may need to be done.

Owners can start by looking at the plat their Realtor gave them and calling the survey company who did that location survey to get an estimate for a boundary survey.

The advantage of using that company is that they have already visited the property and are somewhat familiar with it. Other potential survey companies can be recommended by a settlement company or called from the telephone book.

In the event of a dispute between neighbors who have hired dueling survey companies, the role of the surveyor is simply to record the facts, while the courts will need to decide who is right and how to resolve the conflict.

“Consumers should rely heavily on their Realtors when it comes to having a property survey done,” Mr. Veatch says. “Realtors should be the first line of defense in everything about buying a home, and consumers should ask as many questions as they can about the survey along with everything else.”

“People need to look closely at the charges for the survey which they pay at settlement,” he says. “They should ask for an invoice for the survey from the settlement company, because in some instances, the amount the survey company has invoiced the settlement company may not match what the consumer is being charged.”

As in every other aspect of the home-buying process, consumers need to educate themselves by asking questions about the value of a survey and the costs associated with that survey to decide what best serves their needs.

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