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Understanding ALTA / ACSM Land Title and Property Surveys

A land survey is importance in real estate transfers. A thorough land survey and observation of the property is the only way to
determine the limits of your property and locations of improvements on it. Most people poorly understand land surveys, which
are often the most ignored issue in a real estate transaction. Typically, the surveyor evaluates field and recorded evidence to
produce a property line survey.

What is an ALTA / ACSM Land Title Survey or a property survey anyways?
Survey is a French word meaning "to look over", which refers to the procedure of evaluating evidence of real property that
locates the actual boundaries of a parcel of land. The real property evidence gathered and reviewed by a surveyor includes
physical field evidence, written record evidence, and field survey measurements. Upon evaluating this evidence, the surveyor
offers a professional opinion of where the property line lies, just as if where the line lies was ultimately decided in a court of law.

The surveyor’s professional opinion of the location of the property line is impartial regarding proprietors on each side of a
property line. This opinion is based on experience and applicable legal precedents.  Surveyors infrequently disagree on location
of a boundary line, due to each surveyor evaluating evidence differently to arrive at different property line location opinions.
This is similar to lawyers drawing different conclusions from the same case. A professional survey opinion is subject to court
review, if a boundary dispute evolves into litigation. Therefore, a survey and its documentation may be superior or inferior to that
of another survey. A survey technician can make field measures that are repeatable, but where locating land parcel boundaries
is based upon extensive evidence collection and evaluation, a licensed land surveyor with a complete college education, well
versed in boundary law, and highly experienced should be considered to conduct a land survey of real property.

Benefits Provided in Land Title and Property Surveys
Where real estate will be transferred, five issues are important, which require that a land survey be made.  The survey will
discover,

1.        Does the property really exist?

2.        Adjoining properties and the property – their relationship

3.        Recorded and occupied property lines – their relationship

4.        Property improvements locations

5.        Easements and other facts not in public records


1        Does the property really exist?
Titles to land in this nation arise from a grant or patent and subsequent conveyance of title instruments, which include the
conveyed land’s description. Valid deeds (the instrument that conveys title of the land) must have a sufficient description of the
land. If the description can be interpreted by a surveyor and located on the ground, the description is sufficient. The surveyor
decides if the description conforms within reason to the evidence of its location on the ground.

2        Adjoining properties and the property – their relationship
Simply laying upon the ground the lines described in a deed is not enough to determine the actual limits of property and
occupation rights. All land parcels have an exact matching relation to other land parcels surrounding them, which may include  
private or public land, rights-of-way, easements, roads, water.   Ultimately, the history of the parcels shows they were equally
owned by one proprietor (a common grantor) as a single land parcel before they became individually divided.  This created
senior and junior deeds of conveyance of land parcels.  The unique and common property lines of the land parcels could have
defects such as gaps or overlaps of the record title, causing mismatch of record lines.  This creates problems for future
conveyances of these land parcels, especially where the varied land parcels are consolidated into a one proprietor land parcel
for new land development.
Ownership of the remainder land strips in the mismatch zone must be established, to eliminate risk of the new parcel becoming
landlocked.

3        Recorded and occupied property lines – their relationship
Often, the property lines are occupied or in possession differently from what the deed description of the lines calls for with
respect to distances, directions, and monuments.  This defect variation between possession and deed property lines ranges
between insignificant defect in fence lines to significant encroachment of a building.  The land survey will reveal this defective
line variation and extent of mismatch.  Where the mismatch becomes significant, claim ownership of the mismatch area has
greater potential.  Therefore, this defect can be cured possibly by an agreed upon property line or property line by practical
location, or possibly by adverse possession.  A quiet title action may be necessary to bar other claims to the property.

4        Property improvements locations
Locations of physical improvements on a land parcel may cause problems in title similar to that of occupied property lines not
matching record property lines called for in a deed.  The survey reveals the relation between the location of improvements, the
land parcel, and the perimeter property lines of the land parcel. The improvements that may be defective in title are walls,
fences, driveways, buildings, pavements, patios, sheds, other structures, wells, utilities, ponds, and streams. Location of these
improvements is important, and they are shown on the survey map.  These locations may cause reduced value or use of
property, or non-conformity with city ordinances regulating building setbacks.

5        Easements and other facts not in public records
Unrecorded rights to property may create a land title defect. These rights may not be discovered in a land title search, but they
may likely be detected or observed by physical inspection and survey of the land parcel. The right of a neighbor to use
overhead and underground utility lines, drainage ditches and swales, sewer lines, and unrecorded drive easements across a
land parcel may already be acquired by methods of unwritten transfer of land title and easement such as prescription, practical
location, adverse possession.   A visible observation of the land parcel by the field survey process will likely discover physical
indicators of such potentialunwritten title transfers.  Indicators such as manholes, vent pipes suggest underground utilities.  An
actual field survey with map depiction of discovered unrecorded physical features referenced to the property lines provide one
basis for a title insurance company to remove its survey exception regarding "any state of facts an accurate survey might show."

Ultimate Locations of Property lines
A field survey will discover evidence of land title, which is evaluated by a licensed land surveyor, based on real estate and land
boundary legal principles. Where land title is defective and conflicting with competing claims to property rights, the principles of
written property rights (deed or agreement) are considered, together with principles of unwritten property rights (adverse
possession, prescription, and practical location). Conflicts in written and unwritten property rights create difficult challenges to a
land survey and a real estate lawyer. The ultimate issue will always be the intended location of the true property line, one unique
line, not two equally ambiguous and false lines. This issue may evolve into litigation reviewed and decided by a court of law.

If the surveyor's evaluation of the evidence of land title and property line are eventually upheld in a court of law, it is because
the surveyor arrived at well-reasoned answer rather than a theoretically correct answer. No true answers to land title property
line locations can be given by a surveyor, rather only well-reasoned answers should be provided. The land survey map provided
to a land owner or attorney shows far greater information than property lines alone.
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