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Land Surveys 101: Understanding The Basics

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Land surveys may be needed under different circumstances. Here's a look at land survey basics and the reasons you might need one.

What Exactly Is A Land Survey?

A land survey is done to determine the location by describing and mapping the corners and boundaries of a particular land parcel. It also denotes building locations and any improvements that may have been made. It sometimes includes mapping the land topography as well.

What Is A Boundary?

A boundary demarks the artificial or natural separation between two adjacent properties. An artificial boundary is a written boundary put in place by a government entity, such as the Public Land Survey System, or PLSS. This is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A natural boundary is one that exists in nature, such as a mountain or a river.

How Are Boundaries Created?

Most of the time, boundaries are created by a written document that contains specific property descriptions according to the PLSS grid system used in the United States. It starts with 6-mile square townships, which are then divided down to 36 one-mile square sections. This can be further broken down into quarter sections, quarter-quarter sections, and occasionally, irregular-sized lots if the terrain dictates it.

A permanent marker is placed at each section quarter and quarter-quarter. These markers help determine property lines and rights. In years past, this may have been crudely marked with a pile of stones or a tree, which can sometimes cause property disputes. Occasionally, property rights are determined by sustained possession of the land for an extended length of time.

When Should Your Land Be Surveyed?

  • Anytime You Purchase Land

When you buy real estate, most of the time it will already have a legal description. A land survey will confirm (or expose discrepancies) in that legal description before you purchase it. Many times a lending institution will require a land survey to protect their interests if they are providing you funding.

  • If There Is A Conflict Of Interest

Sometimes two adjacent property owners may dispute where the boundary between them lies. This is more common if the property holders have owned their land for many years or generations. A professional land surveyor can re-establish the legal boundaries.

  • When You Plan To Subdivide A Parcel

If you plan on breaking up a larger parcels into lots, the original boundaries will be determined first. Then the smaller parcels will be divided and their corners marked.