The challenge of keeping property boundary surveys meaningful

July 2005 » Columns » GEOMATICS
Even with the advent of digital this and digital that, there is a significant group within every surveyor's client base that think of the product they get as a map.
Joseph V.R. Paiva, PhD., P.S., P.E.

Even with the advent of digital this and digital that, there is a significant group within every surveyor's client base that think of the product they get as a map.

Many times, the client assumes that others who deal subseqently with the information on the map will deal appropriately with issues that need to be faced, whether troublesome or not. In my last column I discussed new products and services that surveyors and mappers may need to provide. However, much remains to be said about how to improve the services provided currently.

What surveyors really deliver Surveyors have a less uniform opinion about what they deliver than one would expect normally from a profession. When a client seeks a lawyer, physician, or even an engineer, the parties discuss the services to be provided. The client may or may not be knowledgeable about the intricacies of the practice of these professions, but generally after an initial meeting, they leave with some idea of what they will get, and assistance with decision-making in the form of an opinion or recommendation.

With property boundary surveying, clients believe they will get a map and, usually, marks on the ground to indicate the limits of the property. If the survey is performed because it is required by one of the parties involved in a real estate transaction, such as a mortgage holder or title insurer, the property owner may not even know who the surveyor is or be involved in selecting the professional.

Many times, all the property owner may see is the invoice for the services provided. The party involved in hiring the surveyor assumes that the surveyor will point out any problems with the location of the structure on the land described in the deed. Rarely is a discussion held, before or after the survey, about whether the surveyor is locating title lines as shown in the records, or property lines, or whether there is understanding among the parties about the difference.

Assuming all is well with the condition along the title lines, this oversight may be of little consequence. But when problems are encountered regarding monuments controlling the property lines; encroachments; unrecorded deeds; ancient, unoccupied easements (or apparently so); or subsurface rights held by another party, the lack of understanding about a surveyor's services causes, at best, a bad experience for all.

A surveyor's job is to locate deed and property lines using wellestablished surveying procedures, following statute and common law and regulations, with an understanding of the methods, technology, and processes used by earlier surveyors, regardless of the time in which the prior surveys were conducted. No provision is made for "shortcuts" in this process if it turns out that the client is in a hurry, or if a limit in the cost of the survey has been placed by one of the parties. The surveyor's map is intended to be a graphical report of the condition of the property lines so the owner can exercise the appropriate actions to make sure the land (or the use of it) is not given up inadvertently or taken.

Other information may be collected, such as the location of any structures on the land and their relationship to the property lines.

These structures may be houses, barns, outbuildings, or fences, as well as items such as sub-stations, transmission towers, gas vales, and manholes that are placed by holders of easements. In our system of laws, it is accepted that the property owner understands where the limits to the property are around the entire perimeter of his or her land. Furthermore, the owner is expected to understand what rights have been given away (easements, sub-surface rights, and leases) and what rights still remain. The owner is expected to be responsible for ensuring that the rights held by that owner are not given away or taken away. A current, well-performed survey is one of the best tools a landowner can have to maintain his or her "domain" over the land.

But this isn't so well understood. And surveys are seen as necessary evils to satisfy a title insurer or city or county department or some other entity. The need for a survey by such entities often is seen as invasive on the owner's wallet, as well as on other rights. The challenge for the future is for surveyors to understand unambiguously what services they provide and to internalize the benefits that land owners and other stakeholders derive from the survey. By doing this, they not only will see what they do in property boundary surveying as an interesting activity and legitimate profession, but they also will understand the role they play in society and the economic value their labors contribute.

Once this is accomplished, surveyors need to communicate with the public, as individuals, corporations, and professional societies, so that the viability of a critical part of the equation that creates buyers and sellers in this realm is firmly re-established. That is the challenge—to make potential clients and stakeholders knowledgeable so that retaining a surveyor to perform a property boundary survey is regarded by landowners as one of the necessary and important functions to be performed in maintaining one's ownership of the land. (Think of how physical or dental checkups or structural inspections are regarded.) It is, of course, possible to wait until a society-wide crisis is reached, but the remedies that may be imposed by others may not be the most salutary. 

Joseph V.R. Paiva, Ph.D., P.S., P.E., is a geomatics consultant. He can be reached at paiva@cenews.com.


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