Do you know — really know — where the boundaries of your property are? Most people don’t, at least not with certainty, but there are instances where not knowing could put you at legal risk.
When you purchased your home, you should have been given a small map, typically just a photocopy of one portion of a larger map, that showed the size of your lot. Known as a plat map, it typically shows the length of each side of your lot, the name of the streets that border it, the tax lot number, and perhaps the legal description.
If you were not given a map, or if you no longer know what became of it, you’ll want to obtain a new one. Most title companies can provide you with one, or you can get one through your city or county assessor’s or surveyor’s office — it’s something you really should have a copy of for your records.
FINDING PROPERTY LINES
If you want to know where the property lines are, you have two options. You can attempt to locate them yourself, using the plat map and a few investigative skills, or you can have the lines professionally surveyed.
To try to establish the property lines on your own, you first need to locate the property corners. The plat map should show you where the corners are, at least approximately. Surveyors typically mark corners with a metal rod driven into the ground, which may still be visible if the property was surveyed recently, or it may be buried several inches or even a foot or more underground. To save yourself a lot of digging, you can rent a professional-grade metal detector from many rental yards, and use that to narrow the search.
Once the property corners have been located, the rest is fairly straightforward. On smaller, relatively flat lots, you can stretch a string between the corners for reference. You can also use an inexpensive laser to shoot a line from one corner to another. This is best done near dusk, when the projected line is easier to see — wear protective goggles, and take other safety precautions for dealing with lasers as outlined by the manufacturer.
It often happens that locating and laying out property lines, especially on older lots or rural acreage, is very difficult for a nonprofessional to do with any accuracy — if at all. In many cases, the only way to be legally certain is to hire a surveyor. They will work back from established benchmarks and locate your property corners with great accuracy, and will give you a certified document showing where the corners and property lines are.
The cost for a professional survey can vary greatly, depending on the size of the property, how irregular it is, how recently it was surveyed, the distance to the benchmarks, and other factors. However, the cost is minimal when compared to what it would cost in legal fees to fight a property dispute, or in construction costs to move a fence or a building.
WHEN SHOULD YOU GET A SURVEY?
Ideally, when you first purchase a piece of property you and the seller can agree to have the land surveyed and can get a certified copy of an accurate map. In some cases, the seller may be willing to pay the entire cost of the survey, with the understanding that the map remains with the seller if the deal doesn’t go through. Even if the seller is unwilling to participate, it is money well spent to go ahead and have the survey done on your own.
You would also want to have a survey done if you are about to build anywhere near the property lines. This would include constructing a fence or a road, laying water lines or other utilities, adding outbuildings, or constructing an addition to your home. If you are financing the project, the bank may insist on a survey as a condition to issuing the loan.
Another obvious time for a survey would be if a dispute arises between you and an adjacent property owner. In this instance, a survey is almost automatic, as it’s the only way to be legally certain where the boundaries are.
IF A DISPUTE ARISES
In the unfortunate event that a dispute arises with your neighbor, you are going to almost certainly need legal representation. Even if you and your neighbor are able to reach a compromise between the two of you, whatever that compromise is needs to be legally established and recorded with the county so that it becomes part of the record on those properties.
Once again, land disputes can be very costly and time-consuming:
- Prior to undertaking any construction close to your property lines, have a survey done;
- Document and record any agreements with adjacent property owners; and
- If you are ever notified of a boundary dispute involving property you own, don’t ignore it — get appropriate legal advice immediately!
Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.