Ultimate Guide to Land Surveys for Homeowners and Homebuyers

C.E. Larusso
Written by C.E. Larusso
Reviewed by Tara Dudley
Updated July 22, 2022
backyard lawn with garden and wooden chair in middle of lawn
Photo: Roy JAMES Shakespeare / Stone / Getty Images

Whether you're buying a new home, constructing a fence, or simply laying down some new grass seed, surveying your property is an essential step

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Even if you're best buddies with your next-door neighbor, understanding who owns each patch of grass is far more important than it may seem. And while you can handle the measuring process yourself when tackling basic backyard landscaping projects, you'll need a pro by your side for nearly all other types of surveys. 

So, in short, yes, surveying your land is worth it, and we'll outline when and why it's necessary and explain the average cost of a land survey project.

What Is Surveying Land?

Property owners have their land surveyed to confirm the legal boundaries of a parcel of land and to provide a description of its topography and major features. For homeowners, a land survey is most likely something you’d consider having performed upon buying or selling a home, when adjudicating a land dispute with neighbors, or undertaking the kind of major home improvement projects that require permits. 

Land surveyors work in the field to take an array of precise measurements and map the relative distances to major features. They use specialized tools, like theodolites—the angle-measuring optical instruments that you probably picture if you have a mental image of land surveying—and altimeters, devices to chart the altitude of slopes. 

In some cases, they also research public records. The maps they produce—called plats—are often legally binding and play a key role in local record keeping. 

Common Types of Land Surveys

As a homebuyer or homeowner, there are a few different types of land surveys you will likely consider at one point or another. 

Mortgage Location Survey

Lenders and title companies typically require residential mortgage location surveys before providing financing or offering an insurance policy. To perform one, the surveyor must take measurements while physically onsite, directly confirming that any improvements exist as described in any legal documents. 

Boundary Survey

With a boundary survey, the surveyor works to establish the true borders of a property. Boundary surveys are often required when getting construction permits issued. The surveyor visually examines and measures the property, and draws upon public records to produce a detailed map of the lot that will carry legal authority. 

Location Survey

A location survey provides much of the same information as a boundary survey, in addition to supplying detailed descriptions of any improvements. They are often undertaken in relation to questions of zoning. 

Site-Planning Survey

You would hire a surveyor to perform a site-planning survey before applying for building permits or undertaking any major improvements. 

Topographic Survey

When hired for a topographic survey, surveyors take measurements onsite to produce a plat—or formal map—of land elevations on the parcel. It also describes the location and size of natural features and improvements made by previous owners.

Top Reasons to Have Your Land Surveyed

You'll occasionally encounter a new project or big transition in life that requires the help of a licensed land surveyor. In some cases, a professional survey of your land is legally required. In others, it's simply helpful to pull off a project successfully. 

Let's take a closer look at each scenario and how a land surveyor can lend a hand.

1. Buying a New Home and Applying for a Mortgage

The house itself often gets all the attention during a home purchase. But buying a property also means acquiring your own little—or big—plot of land. Banks typically require the buyer to bring in a professional land surveyor before the sale. In some cases, the seller takes on the costs, but this depends on your contract.

Having your land surveyed, in this case, is important to:

  • Confirm the value of the home and property

  • Ensure you or your future neighbor's fences are not creeping over the line

  • Make sure your home's deed accounts for the right corners of your property

  • Confirm your property shape for future fences or stone walls

You may also need a survey completed when refinancing your home, especially if you've made recent changes to the property.

2. Building a Fence

Fences are far more about logistics than marking your property these days. The right fence allows the kids to explore the yard or keeps the neighborhood dog from taking a dip in the pool.

Before you hammer the first spike into the ground, you'll likely need to get the construction approved with the help of a land surveyor. The process of marking your land ensures you don't invest in fence installation only to find out you've crossed over your neighbor's lawn. The same goes for a stone wall or large patio installation.

3. Expanding the House

Adding an extra bathroom or guest bedroom onto the side of your home could mean that your home now presses up against your property line. Your state may either require or suggest hiring a surveyor before breaking ground on a new addition to your home. 

The process ensures that your neighbor doesn't file a lawsuit down the line if your guest room crosses into their vegetable garden. Topographic surveys can be particularly important here, especially if you need to alter the landscape or remove a tree to safely construct.

4. Breaking Ground on New Construction

The same process goes for breaking ground on new construction. Perhaps you purchased a new plot of land in Florida, where the home still lives on paper. A surveyor will provide several surveying services such as topography, boundary marking, and staking before construction can begin.

5. DIY Landscaping

In all of the cases we've listed above, the town or state typically requires the confirmation of a licensed professional land surveyor. The only time to take surveying into your own hands is if you need to know the area of your lawn for a DIY landscape job. Buying seed, stone, or sod are the most typical occasions.

In this case, you'll need to find your property's original deed and buy some basic surveying tools—range poles, changing pins, and plumb bombs—to get started.

Where to Find Existing Land Surveys

Before hiring a surveyor to have your land surveyed, you should do some research and find out what the recorded surveys have to say. First, take a look at your property deed to figure out what kind of survey information it contains. 

From there, try your city or county’s building department or land recorder’s office. In some cases, the tax assessor’s office will be the agency with the most accessible records.

You can also contact your title company since they will have previous surveys on file from the home’s prior owners. 

Searching online for recorded property surveys is also a good idea, since in many places, this information is part of the public record. If you’re willing to spend some time digging, you can find a lot more than it may seem at first and can be a worthwhile use of energy if you’re looking to save money. 

Finally, if you’d really rather avoid paying for a new survey, you might contact the previous surveyor. If they have the records on file, they might be happy to provide them for a smaller fee than a fresh survey would entail. 

Cost to Survey Your Land

A professional surveyor has the tools, training, and local knowledge to ensure you check all the right boxes and get your project moving forward in the right direction. That being said, expect the cost of a land survey to average around $510. Costs tend to break down by the size of your lawn, ranging between $0.50 to $0.70 per square foot or $50 and $500 per acre. 

Cut costs by handling a bit of the legwork for your survey team whenever possible. If you have the deed and survey record in a safe place, excellent. But some older homes may require a trip to your county office to get a copy of the original. 

Finding these details on your own means that your land surveyor spends less time chasing down important details, thus lowering your estimate. When surveying your land on your own—for those DIY lawn projects mentioned above—expect to pay around $75 for supplies.

Finding a Great Professional Land Surveyor

Technical know-how and precision are key qualities of a reliable land surveyor—and with so much riding on their important work, you want to be sure you hire a qualified professional who is well suited to perform the type of survey you need. 

Land surveyors are accredited at the state level, so determine your state’s requirements for education and licensure to understand the local standard. Surveyors are typically required to possess a bachelor’s degree in surveying, mapping, or geomatics. State boards issue licenses, often requiring surveyors to complete certificate programs—or to possess significant relevant work experience—to be able to legally practice in the state. 

Ask for recommendations from your title company since they work closely with many different surveyors and will have a good sense of who is reliable in your area. Search Angi to read reviews of local surveyors. 

When identifying candidates to have your land surveyed, ask how they keep up with new developments in the field and look for surveyors who eagerly continue their education. The relevant laws and technologies change frequently and you want to make sure your surveyor is alert to all the cutting-edge tools and the latest requirements. 

As when hiring other contractors, confirm that your surveyor holds liability and workers’ compensation insurance, so that you’re not held financially responsible for any accidents that occur in the process.

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