Land Surveying: When Should a Homeowner Call in the Professionals?

Land Surveying: When Should a Homeowner Call in the Professionals?

Becoming a homeowner, especially a first-time owner, can be a taxing experience. Luckily, there’s a rolodex of professionals dedicated to guiding homeowners along the way. One of those key professionals, although not often top of mind, is a Professional Land Surveyor (PLS). As experts in measuring and mapping land, aiding in the evaluation of property value and determining potential risk factors, surveyors are valuable assets to commercial and residential properties. Recently, we sat down with Mike Clifford, Co-founder, Principal and PLS at DGT, to discuss the discipline of surveying as it relates to residential properties.

Let’s start at the most basic level. What is a land survey?

A land survey, completed by a professional land surveyor (PLS), provides an accurate delineation of property boundaries. However, a PLS establishes more than just the lay of the land. They’re able to offer guidance concerning the structure, property, and grounds to avoid the costly building mistakes that can keep homeowners from achieving their dream home.

In what instances would a homeowner need a survey?

A professional land survey has many benefits, uses, and applications, but most times, a homeowner hires a surveyor for highly specific reason. Some of the factors driving the need include:

  • Purchasing a Home: When buying a home, the lender will often require a mortgage inspection. A mortgage inspection confirms that a property has been accurately valued. In addition, a mortgage inspection protects the lender by highlighting any surprise encroachments or easements that may be previously unknown. While a mortgage inspection is completed by a professional land surveyor, it’s important to note in practice a typical mortgage inspection plan does not reflect the same level of research and detail as a land survey.
  • Outdoor & Landscaping Improvements: If homeowners are looking to add a shed or build an addition, they’ll need a certified plot plan. A certified plot plan, a standard term used by building inspectors, depicts accurate property lines, total square footage, and existing structures on a property. An accurate certified plot plan can protect you from encroaching on a neighbor’s property. In Massachusetts, it is required that a certified plot plan be drawn up by a licensed surveyor or engineer prior to making landscaping enhancements.
  • Interior Renovation: If the interior renovation of a home is over a certain dollar value, the building inspector will often require a certified plot plan.
  • Retaining Walls: In older neighborhoods, especially around Boston where we work, retaining walls built in the 19th century between abutting lots may be deteriorating or falling. A survey is often done to determine who owns the retaining wall and has to pay for the improvements.
  • Dispute with a Neighbor: Unfortunately, simple conflicts with neighbors often prompt the need for a survey. Recently, I was called to a residential apartment complex in Boston because of a dispute regarding a 2-foot alleyway. Neighbors were arguing over who had the right to store their garbage cans there. In these cases, a survey can be an expensive solution to a problem that could be solved with a conversation. If your neighbor is adamant that you’re encroaching on their property, ask them how they know it’s their property? Did they hire a surveyor? Do they have a plan with a stamp on it? Although I don’t mind helping neighbors work through their grievances, it’s beneficial for all parties involved if neighborly issues stay in the neighborhood and get resolved one-on-one.
  • Analyzing Land: Although uncommon, sometimes astute owners of large plots of land or property will want a survey done so they can analyze for potential development and additions. Recently, I worked with a homeowner who owns a double plot of land. His goal was to analyze the land and determine if he could subdivide and build another house on a separate lot. Sometimes, homeowners want to do their own due diligence and know more about the land they own.
Will you need to enter a neighbor’s property to complete a survey?

Yes, in some instances we may need to enter the neighbor’s property to complete the survey. However, in Massachusetts, there’s a law that allows surveyors the right of entry into neighboring properties as long as notice is provided.

What are some other laws that homeowners should be aware of?

250 CMR, a code of Massachusetts regulations, establishes standards for Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors. Specifically, Section 6 regulates the practice of land surveying. These standards discuss the types of surveying, standard of care and provide meaning behind the role of a licensed land surveyor. In short, these regulations help ensure that land surveys are comprehensive and accurate.

When surveying a residential property, what tools or equipment do surveyors use?

Typically, a survey crew will consist of one or two people that arrive in a truck or a van. To perform the survey, the crew uses a total station. While most work is done using conventional survey equipment, 3D imaging and GPS technology are becoming more common for residential work.

Before a surveyor comes to a residential property, do homeowners need to provide surveyors with any records, maps, or documentation?

While it’s uncommon for homeowners to have a copy of their property deed or an old property survey, if you do it’s certainly helpful information to provide. However, providing previous research is not going to change the work to be done because a principle of surveying is that surveyors rely on their own due diligence.

What is Massachusetts land court? Why is it important?

Land in Massachusetts is either recorded at the registry of deeds, which happens with most property, or it’s registered through the Land Court. Massachusetts Land Court is a legal process to clear the title and ensure there are no other claims to the property. In addition, a survey is completed according to the Land Court standards and accounted for on public record. When all components are completed, the land survey is approved by a judge. By registering land through this process, it protects against future adverse-possession claims. Adverse Possession, a common-law concept, allows an individual to claim someone else’s property by proving that it’s been in their use for an extended period of time. This process of adjudicating land through land court dates back to the early 1900s but never caught on around the United States.

Are there any tips you can provide about hiring a surveyor?
  • Hire local: Hire an experienced local residential surveyor. To do surveys efficiently, it’s helpful to have built-up a body of knowledge of the area.
  • Cost of Surveying: Be wary of trusting survey costs seen on the internet. The best way to learn about pricing, for a typical residential property survey in New England, is to contact a local company.
Finding Value in Our Labor

Overall, surveyors take a lot of satisfaction in our work. We’re able to help facilitate communication between neighbors, provide valuable information that allows homeowners to make home improvements, and, most importantly, allows us to give back to our communities.

To learn more about DGT’s surveying principle visit our website: