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How to Avoid a Turf War, and 5 Other Things Your Surveyor Wishes You Knew

By February 11, 2016No Comments
surveyors at work


Most of us only encounter property surveyors when we drive by construction projects and see them sporting those awesome, blindingly bright yellow or orange jackets. But did you know they also can help when you’re buying a home or adding a new kitchen? A lot.

Their tools and methods may seem inscrutable—just what is that camera-looking thing, anyway? (Answer: a digital theodolite, used to measure angles. Now you know.) But property surveyors have a unique superpower in the real estate world: Their accurate info can end a dispute with neighbors, ensure you’re paying a fair price for your new home, or make sure there’s enough room to build a guesthouse without encroaching on the lot next door.

If you need to hire a surveyor, it helps to know just what, exactly, you’re entitled to get out of the whole thing. And that starts with understanding how surveyors work. Here’s what you need to know—straight from the source.

1. You might need them—even if you think you don’t

Property surveyors aren’t only useful for remodeling. There are a number of situations where their help is in demand (or even required). Understand how and when to deploy them:

  • Buying a home. New construction doesn’t typically require a survey, but your mortgage lender may mandate it to ensure the borders are as described and there are no potential encroachments.
  • You’re in a (less than) neighborly dispute. If you’re arguing about a fence that’s totally on your property, it’s time to hire a surveyor to determine the facts. This has legal holding in court and will determine what and where you can freely build to comply with setback requirements (the minimum distance at which buildings are permitted).
  • You want to add on to your home. Before building an in-law unit or adding a storage shed, make sure to survey your property. If you don’t follow (or misunderstand) the setback requirements—or if you just don’t realize the back corner of your property actually belongs to your neighbor—you could end up in a load of trouble, with a lawsuit or costly fines to pay.


2. They answer to a higher authority

You might hire the surveyor, but the surveyor still doesn’t answer to you. At least not entirely. Surveyors’ decisions are dictated by history, science, and math—and it doesn’t matter if you want that extra square foot of yard to build your shed.

Surveyors compare historical data with existing markers to determine the precise edges of your property, and the decisions they make are permanently preserved at the county recorder’s office.

“It never goes away,” says Sedona, AZ land surveyor Peter Yachimski. “It is a matter of public record forever. When I produce a document, I am liable for the information on that document until I die. I could be 80 years old, and if someone finds a problem in a document I produced, I could be sued for it.”

Surveying is “viewed as a profession that protects the welfare and public safety” of residents, Yachimski says, so you can bet surveyors take their responsibility seriously and work hard to be objective.

3. The work is worth the price

A survey might seem easy, but it requires a lot of diligence and work. Not only do surveyors need to manage the legal and historical implications of their work, but they spend a lot of time on hunting down (on foot!) markers and landmarks that help them determine the edges of your property.

Property surveys can cost anywhere from $200 to nearly $1,000, depending on your location and the scope of the work—though the average reported cost for such a job is $477.

If your property markers are hidden (sometimes they get buried or covered by landscaping), it can add to the price tag. But a good surveyor should keep you updated on additional charges before performing the work.

4. Your GPS isn’t good enough

If you’re planning an addition, you might think finding the property lines via iPhone would suffice—but you’d be setting yourself up a huge, expensive headache down the line. Maybe not even far down the line.

“Modern technology has promoted one very big misconception,” Yachimski says. “People think that they can walk around with a GPS unit and find their property corner in 10 minutes.”

Surveyors’ professional-grade GPS systems cost thousands of dollars and are generally accurate within a centimeter. Most consumer-level GPS units are accurate to 15 or 20 feet.

5. The best way to find them is through referrals

“It’s very much a word-of-mouth kind of industry,” Yachimski says. “Just simply searching the Internet is probably not going to lead to success.”

Instead, contact your agent or attorney for a recommendation. And don’t just go with the first surveyor you meet—Yachimski recommends getting at least three different quotes, and eliminating any lowballing outsiders.

“If two out of three are more or less the same, and one is really low, there’s probably a problem with that price,” he says. “Either he’s misleading the customer, or he’s not familiar with the location, so he’s inclined to make a mistake.”

6. They’re sometimes a bit antisocial

Surveyors are a unique breed, Yachimski says—and a lot of that comes from long days alone in the field.

“Early in my career, I would spend days walking around the woods and never see another human being other than the people in my survey party,” he says. “That was great. That’s the personality type the profession attracts: People who by and large don’t really like to interact with the outside world.”

So if your surveyor is a little … quirky, don’t be put off. It’s part of what makes them so great at their job.




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