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Knowledge Center



What is a Property Survey?

A property survey can be an essential step when buying a home or other property. It’s a legal document that is helpful for buyers, sellers, lenders and title insurance companies because it provides a detailed assessment of a plot of land.

There are numerous types of property surveys, each with their own special functions, so it’s important to understand the differences to know which one is best for you.

The basics: What is it?

A standard property survey is a map or drawing that delimits a plot of land’s boundary lines and other specific features. Usually conducted by professionally trained surveyors, they help property owners build a detailed and precise picture of their land for mortgage lenders, title insurance companies and other relevant entities.

Features that property surveys typically identify include:

  • Property/boundary lines
  • Easements Utilities
  • Elevation levels
  • Improvements
  • Regulation compliance
  • Hazard areas

Do I need one?

Property surveys have several different uses, but they are most commonly needed when owners want to sell or make changes to their property.

Homebuying & Selling

Surveys are not usually legally required to sell a property, but certain property surveys may be required by your lender and title insurance company based on the type of home financing you're seeking. It might mitigate the risk of future disputes between people on neighboring parcels of land.

Construction and improvement

Owners who want to make improvements to their land should also consider conducting a property survey. Check with your local government for the regulations in your area. Even a small project on private land could have set-back requirements or restricted zones.

Comparing common property assessments

It can be difficult to distinguish between property surveys and other, similar types of property assessments. But the differences are important so it’s helpful to know which situations demand each type.

Plot plan

Property surveys are often confused with plot plans. Plot plans are used to show the dimensions of a given piece of land and to identify the location of buildings, roads, utility lines and other features. Plot plans are intended to show what is on the land, as opposed to property surveys, which show where the plot begins/ends.

Appraisal

Both property surveys and appraisals are essential components when buying or selling a property, but there are key distinctions. Appraisals are used to determine fair market value of a property, whereas surveys are used to create an image of it. Some property buyers/sellers mistakenly believe that these assessments are interchangeable, but they each serve different purposes and need to be conducted separately.

Home inspection

Home inspections are used to assess the conditions of a property, including its electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems, as well as any health or safety features. This visual inspection ensures if there is anything present (or not present) within the home that would affect its value. In contrast, property surveys typically focus on the exact measurements of a property and its property lines and should not be used in place of them.

Building survey

These types of surveys provide a full assessment of the buildings themselves, as opposed to a mapping of the entire property. They typically include details on floor plans, building sections, interior elevations and other structural features. While property surveys often include some basic information on buildings, these are usually scant.

What are the different types of property surveys?

There are numerous different types of property surveys, each one serving a unique function. Understanding the various types can help you determine which survey is right for your situation:

  • Property line/boundary survey. This is the standard property survey, which is used to identify the boundaries between properties. Surveyors conduct this survey by locating and marking the corners of a property. Boundary surveys help determine the precise area and shape of a particular plot of land. They are typically used for construction projects and property buying.
  • Construction survey. Construction surveys are used to help plan and layout an improvement project. Unlike boundary surveys, which serve only to identify the lines between properties, construction surveys mark suitable locations for an improvement project to help guide builders and engineers.
  • Mortgage survey. Similar to a boundary survey, a mortgage survey identifies property lines and improvements made to the land. They tend to be less precise than boundary surveys, however, so they aren’t typically used for construction projects. 
  • Right-of-way/easement survey. These types of surveys mark easements and other locations that can be legally used by other entities, typically for neighboring property owners or government/state entities. For private property owners, the most common easements are driveways and utility lines.
  • Topographical survey. A topographical survey uses 3-D mapping technology to identify both natural and manmade elevation changes and other pronounced surface features on a parcel of land. They are typically needed for complex improvement plans, like drainage projects or utility designs.
  • Floodplain survey. Floodplain surveys are conducted to determine if the property is located in a flood zone to ensure that they are in compliance with all flood and elevation regulations. A lender or title company may require a property to have flood insurance, in which case a floodplain survey would be necessary.
  • As-built survey. As-built surveys are conducted after a residential or commercial property has been built to ensure that the entire structure adheres to all regulatory compliances. They are typically required in conjunction with a city or town inspection before a certificate of occupancy can be administered to the new owner.
  • Subdivision survey. These surveys are used when property owners want to split a plot of land into two or more parts. Each new plot of land must adhere to all standard zoning and setback regulations in order to be approved by the proper government entity.
  • ALTA survey. An ALTA survey combines many of the features of other property surveys into one comprehensive, standardized assessment. They detail boundary lines, improvements, utilities, easements and other major features. ALTA surveys are regulated by the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

How a property survey is completed

The same three-step process is used to complete surveys:

  • Research. Surveyors will conduct detailed research of all information pertaining to the properties, including deed history, a title search, and legal descriptions to build a complete conceptual design of the property layout.
  • Fieldwork. Surveyors will then visit the property itself and mark different boundary points and other areas of significance.
  • Mapping. They complete the process by drawing a sketch of their results. More sophisticated surveys will be mapped using GPS or computer-aided design (CAD) technologies. The final product is presented to all relevant parties.

How can Residential Mortgage Services help

Property surveys can be difficult to navigate, but they don’t need to be. When applying for home financing, we'll let you know upfront what surveys are needed for your particular situation. For instance, if a class D survey is required as part of the mortgage loan, RMS will include the cost in the Loan Estimate and will also select the survey company. Understanding the basics and learning how to distinguish between the different types can make you feel more confident when discussing options with your lender.

If you are looking to obtain a property survey for your own records and interest, start with your local property office as there may already be one on file.

Taking out a mortgage is a major life decision, so it’s important to make sure you’re following the right steps to ensure the process is as smooth as possible. Experience the RMS difference for yourself today!