Daniel A. Suchman
Articles - Surveys
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Daniel A. Suchman - Real Estate Lawyer - Seattle, Bainbridge, Western WA - Survey Article Photo

The Importance of Land Surveys

In this article I will discuss the importance of obtaining and reviewing a land survey before purchasing real estate. 

I often represent property owners who have boundary line problems that they discovered only after purchasing their properties.  The problems are sometimes simple fence encroachments, or disputes with neighbors about boundary locations.  Other times the problems are more serious: In a couple of cases, my clients had not purchased the houses that they thought they had purchased.  And in another case, my client discovered that he had built a house entirely on the wrong lot (i.e., a lot that he did not own).  In most cases, these problem could have been avoided if my clients had obtained and reviewed surveys before purchasing their properties.  Incidentally, the types of problems that surveys would have disclosed are, in most cases, not covered by title insurance.1  Yet many -- if not most -- buyers of residential property in Western Washington do not obtain or review surveys prior to closing.

Here are some of the principal reasons to obtain and review a survey:

  • To verify that the legal description used for the property in fact describes the property that you thinks that you are buying.
  • To determine whether improvements (buildings, driveways, fences, utility lines, etc.) intended to be located on your property encroach into a neighbor's property, or vice-versa.
  • To mark the boundaries on the ground, so that they are clear to observers standing on or near the property.
  • To provide a baseline record of the location of existing improvements, to inform future decisions of whether a new survey is needed.
  • To discover trails and other evidence of use by third parties that might suggest that someone has established an implied easement over a portion of the property, or might claim a portion of the property by reason of adverse possession.
  • To provide the evidence needed by the title insurer to delete certain standard exceptions to coverage and thereby provide “extended coverage” against off-record title matters (including matters that would be revealed by an accurate survey).

The specific information that a surveyor collects in the field and includes in the survey drawing depends upon your needs.  More detailed surveys do, of course, tend to be more costly.  The minimum information that a survey must provide is dictated by state law.2  However, you or your lender or title insurance company might require more detail (for example, topographic information, or the location of underground structures and equipment).3 

I generally recommend that a purchaser obtain a new survey if one or more of the following conditions exist:

  • A survey reflecting the all significant improvements currently located on the property does not exist or can not be found.
  • A survey exists, but the property corner markers (usually iron pipes) set by the prior surveyor have become lost, buried, overgrown, or otherwise can not be found, and there are no natural features (e.g., a big tree or stump) or structures noted on the existing survey drawing from which the approximate boundary locations can easily be inferred by an observer standing on the ground.
  • A survey exists, and the corners of the property are clearly marked, but there is not a clear line of sight between adjacent property corners (e.g., a property boundary runs through dense woods or brush), and there are or will be improvements located near this obscured boundary.
  • Surveys exist for portions of the property, but the property as a whole consists of two or more parcels that are not platted and that are described by “metes and bounds,” such that without a surveyor's interpretation of the legal descriptions one can not be certain of whether the parcels are contiguous, or whether there might exist a “gap” between, or overlap of, property boundaries.
  • There is currently pending, or there will likely be in the near future, further development of adjoining parcels (i.e., the owner of the property to be surveyed wants to make sure that the adjacent owners know the locations of the common boundaries so as to avoid encroachments).

Even when one or more of the foregoing conditions are present, a survey might not be necessary, and the purchaser might wish to bear the risk of doing without a survey, if one or more of the following conditions also exist:

  • The cost of a survey would be high when compared to the value of the property and improvements.
  • The property use is residential and: (a) the building, driveways, fences and other structures  are complete, and (b) the title insurance company is willing to issue "extended coverage", a "homeowner's endorsement" or a "homeowner's policy of title insurance" without requiring a survey.

Please remember that this article contains only the most basic information about its subject matter.  I do not intend this article to contain legal advice specific to any particular person or situation.  Before entering into any agreement concerning your property, I urge you to consult with a real estate lawyer and with your tax or estate planning advisor.


1  Most "standard coverage" title insurance policies in Washington contain an exception for matters that would have been disclosed by an accurate survey.  The exception can be eliminated, and the title companies will provide "extended coverage", if the insured purchaser obtains a survey that meets the requirements of the title insurance company.  For improved residential property, limited coverage against some of the matters that would been disclosed by an accurate survey can sometimes be obtained, without a survey, by obtaining a "homeowner's endorsement", or by purchasing a "homeowner's form of title insurance" (patterned after the ALTA 1998 or 2003 form).

In Washington, the minimum detail standards for land surveys are described in WAC 332-130.

3  Additional information that can be included in a survey is listed in Table A of the Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/ACSM Land Title Surveys, as adopted by the American Land Title Association, the American Congress on Surveying & Mapping, and National Society of Professional Surveyors.

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