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Setting Boundaries

Why a survey of your property could be one of the most important pieces of paper you own

© David Wilson/istockphoto.com

Planning on renovating or adding on? Buying a new property? Hiring a qualified surveyor to create an accurate and complete record of your property can be an essential investment. An accurate and complete survey can ultimately save you time, money and a wheelbarrow of grief. 

Think you know where your property line is?  Are you sure? A proper survey will show which side of the property line that neighbor’s fence is on, who’s tree it really is, and document easements that can affect your ability to develop your property. An accurate survey will tell you the area of your lot, which can affect the size of additions and new construction that you are allowed by zoning. If you are building, renovating or adding on, an inaccurate or incomplete survey can cause project delays and create costly and unwanted surprises. 

All in the details

You may already have what is known as a “plot plan” of your property. This is not the same as a survey. A plot plan typically shows the footprint of the house and its location on the site and often not much else. A survey is far more detailed and contains elements essential to getting through the zoning permit process, usually an early part of a construction project.  

A complete survey will show measured property lines (expressed in “metes and bounds”), significant topography easements, site utilities, additional structures such as garages and sheds, wells, septic fields, stone walls, large trees, and landscape elements such as rock outcroppings. This requires not only careful study of the property directly at the site, but research into town records to make sure nothing is overlooked, especially elements such as wetlands, environmental restrictions and easements. 

A proper survey can save you time and money 

As an architect, I have dealt with homeowners reluctant to spend the money on a survey. One property owner wanted to build a house in the middle of a large piece of land, far from any setbacks. As a result, he was convinced he could do without a survey until it was time to submit plans for permit. Without a drawing showing the topography of the area for the new house however, we were unable to do more than guess at the relationships of the grade levels to the first floor and walk-out basement. We didn’t obtain accurate topographic information until much later, which led to time-consuming changes in the drawings, adding delay to the project. In addition, only by precisely locating the new house in relation to the road were we able to obtain accurate pricing from contractors for the cost of the new driveway. 

Inaccuracies and missing information can lead to unwanted delays in the design and permitting process. The zoning approval process is a critical element in a project schedule—having a design rejected because of incomplete site information can add weeks or months to a project as well as a flat out rejection.  

They can also lead to the need for costly changes in the design. Adam Hoffman of Godfrey-Hoffman Associates in North Haven relates the following story illustrating the consequences of a poorly executed survey. 

A home was constructed using a poorly-executed survey with incomplete topography. The driveway to be installed was found to exceed the maximum grade allowed by code—the owner had no choice but to install a serpentine driveway that took up a large and unsightly portion of the front yard.  Could the owner have sued the surveyor?  Yes, but turns out the original surveyor had no insurance. The owner’s chances of recouping anything were slim and he was left with an unattractive and devalued property.   

A good surveyor is thorough

Some surveyors depend on real estate attorneys to provide title information. A good surveyor will walk the site and do his or her own research.  Hoffman tells another story about staking out a site. He walked the property and noticed a well-used path traversing the property. This path was not shown on any drawing on file. Under many local laws, such paths, if old enough can fall under “adverse possession” or a “prescriptive easement” and disallow development of the site. Wanting to avoid delays and legal fees, the owner chose to look at another site. 

How to find a great surveyor?

Architects, real estate attorneys, realtors, all can be good resources. Check with the BBB to check for any complaints. Ask for references. Find a well-established firm that isn’t likely to go out of business. Verify that they have insurance. Most importantly: don’t necessarily go with the cheapest option. A proper survey takes time and expertise. 

Your property is your investment. A good survey is one of the most valuable tools you can have when it comes time to build, add-on or renovate.

Ellen MalmonEllen Malmon AIA is an architect who writes and draws.

To contact Ellen visit her website: www.ellenmalmon.com or call 203.417.0855