- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A common — and usually honest — mistake has the potential of turning neighbors into foes. Imagine having just installed a shed, an expensive fence or even worse, a swimming pool, only to discover that you have to move it because it violates a neighbor’s property line.

Industry experts strongly advise prospective buyers and homeowners to take the time to be certain of their property lines to avoid potential headaches.

“Good, well-known boundaries make for good neighbors,” says Ralph Jones, president of the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Virginia Association of Surveyors.

People often mistake an existing fence as the true boundary line between properties when purchasing or making improvements on a home. A fence or even a neatly placed shed anchoring the corner of the back yard doesn’t necessarily mean that’s officially where your property ends and the neighbor’s begins.

Prior to listing a property on the market, real estate agents will visually inspect the boundaries. If the agent notes any potential discrepancies, he or she might refer to a plat, measure the property boundaries or suggest that the seller contact a survey professional.

Surveyors are often retained prior to a home’s sale, prior to beginning construction on improvements within property boundaries, when dividing parcels of land for sale, and when property ownership disputes arise.

“A survey of your property will most likely identify encroachments across property lines by improvements, including fences, on either your or your neighbor’s property,” says Ralph Jones. “It should also identify any existing violations of local zoning regulations with respect to the location of improvements on the property.”

Erika Tucker, managing attorney with Monarch Title in the Kensington/Bethesda office, says some lenders require a property survey. Others don’t.

Ms. Tucker says, however, that more lenders require a survey before settlement than do not.

Ordering a survey offers home buyers peace of mind, she says, and it is one of the easiest parts to closing on a home.

Amy Palumbo is a settlement attorney with Universal Settlements in Rockville. She also has worked as a Realtor. She agrees that surveys are imperative to making a home purchase.

“Surveys are often required by lenders, and it’s the title company that orders them,” Ms. Palumbo says. “Even if it’s not required by law, a survey is highly recommended.”

Real estate lawyers and surveyors agree that without a survey, homeowners are just opening themselves up to problems down the line, especially when it comes to home improvements.

Quite often the buyer is out of the loop when it comes to arranging the survey because it is usually scheduled through the real estate agent and title company, says Steven Jones, a surveyor with Charles P. Johnson and Associates in Silver Spring.

However, homeowners should always get a copy of their survey and be aware of what kind they are having done because most surveys don’t include ground stakes.

“Be sure to know what product you are getting,” Steven Jones says.

He says there two types of surveys: A mortgage location survey shows the boundary lines for the land, any improvements, easements and building setback lines; a stake survey shows the same information — but adds the use of marking stakes on the corners of your property.

Steven Jones advises home buyers to spend the money for a survey so that the boundaries are marked.

“It puts the neighbors on notice so that they respect the property lines,” he says.

The cost of surveys varies significantly depending on factors such as the type of survey, location of the property, the extent of improvements on the property and availability of surveyors to perform the work.

Realtor Robbi Kimball of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Silver Spring says that a survey relying purely on researching recorded surveys and maps of the area usually costs about $200. A physical survey can cost five times as much, or more.

Some firms specialize in residential surveys. Others concentrate more on large-scale land development.

It is wise to plan ahead and schedule a survey early in the process of purchasing a home or adding a fence, sunroom or other improvements.

Ms. Kimball says recently, the number of real estate transactions has swamped many ancillary businesses, including surveyors, inspectors and appraisers.

“Because of this backlog, a physical boundary survey now must be scheduled two to four months before it is actually performed, which makes it impractical for most settlements,” Ms. Kimball says.

When looking for a surveyor, Steven Jones recommends checking with two or three firms that are available and willing to perform the work.

It is wise, he says, to choose a surveyor who belongs to their state’s professional association.

• Virginia Association of Surveyors Inc., www.vasurveyors.org

• District of Columbia Association of Land Surveyors, www.dcals.org

• Maryland Society of Surveyors, www.marylandsurveyor.org.

Those who deal with boundary disputes say many seemingly innocent situations can turn into nightmares when property lines aren’t taken into account.

“I have had clients who were forced to tear down brand new fences, demolish and relocate driveways, or remove beautifully landscaped gardens because they failed to obtain a survey of their lot lines before installation of those improvements,” Steven Jones says.

Surveyors say homeowners apparently are catching on. Steven Jones says more people seem to be requesting surveys when they are getting ready to have fences installed. Sometimes, they turn up the unexpected.

“If their neighbors didn’t get a survey when they purchased their lot, this will in many instances be the first time they know exactly where their property lines are,” Steven Jones says.

It should raise a red flag when buyers purchasing a home notice differences between improvements that exist on the property and what is shown to them on the survey.

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