Imagine purchasing your dream home, only to find out that your house was built on the incorrect lot, or that part of your home lies on your neighbor’s property, or vice versa. Situations like this are more common than you may think and routinely happen across the country.
In 2009, a $1.8-million home was constructed on preserved parkland in Rhode Island. A court subsequently ordered the structure’s removal. Likewise, in 2013, a woman built her home half a mile away from the lot she had actually purchased in Stockton, Utah. In 2015, a purchaser of a vacant lot in Orlando, Florida, erected a fence over a neighbor’s pool and through the garage because they encroached on the purchaser’s land by 15 feet.
As you can imagine, boundary line disputes like these are costly and take years to resolve. The good news is that purchasers can avoid most boundary line disputes by obtaining a survey.
A survey is a boundary map of a specific plot of land. A surveyor physically inspects the property and analyzes the land in conjunction with the land records and any existing maps. Based on the inspection and analysis, the surveyor creates a survey that reveals the exact locations of the property’s boundary lines, structures and easements.
Arguably, a survey tells you more about a premises than any other single document can. A survey confirms where the property is physically located by delineating its boundary lines. The boundary lines not only indicate where the property begins and ends in relation to the surrounding lots, but also form the basis of the legal description included in the closing deed. This information is necessary to confirm that the closing documents describe the property the buyer intends to purchase. For buyers who intend to build, knowing where the property’s boundary lines are located is paramount to ensuring that construction is completed on and within the correct lot.
Additionally, a survey allows a buyer to compare the legal description with what the property actually looks like and gives important insight into the physical characteristics of the land. A survey shows the current improvements – including any homes, garages, sheds, pools and fences – and their exact distances from the property’s boundary lines. The buyer can see if the improvements cross the boundary lines, alerting them to potential disputes or costly claims over ownership of the land. A survey also confirms that the improvements comply with any existing setback lines imposed by the municipality, and that the structures are accounted for and accurately described on the filed Certificate of Occupancy. This knowledge gives a buyer leverage to negotiate with the seller to adjust the purchase price and correct any issues prior to closing.
Another benefit of a survey is being able to see where any easements lie on the property. Easements give access to a specific portion of a premises to parties who do not own the real estate. Common easements include driveway easements, utility easements and conservation easements. A title search shows the type of easements on the property and who the easements are granted to, while a survey shows where the easements are located relative to the boundary lines and existing improvements. This information helps a buyer discern whether an existing easement will impede on the intended use of the property or any future construction plans.
It is important to ensure the survey being relied upon complies with professional standards. In general, the survey should be prepared, dated, signed and sealed by a surveyor who is licensed in the state where the property is located. The surveyor’s license number should be visible on the seal. The surveyor should certify the survey to the purchasers of the property, as well as to the title underwriter and the lender, if applicable. This certification is the surveyor’s guarantee to the certified parties that the survey is accurate and was done in accordance with all professional guidelines.
A buyer should be wary of relying on an older survey, as it will not be certified to them. The surveyor is liable only to the certified parties. An older survey may not disclose issues that materialized after the prior survey was completed.
Purchasing a new survey eliminates guesswork when it comes to confirming the legal description of a premises. The surveyor may even draft a legal description for the property based on the final survey, as measurements of directions and distances are far more accurate now than they were in the past. As part of its due diligence, the title company insuring the purchase will compare the survey to the existing legal description and address any discrepancies prior to closing. This process ensures that the legal description included in the recorded closing documents is correct. Without a new survey, it is harder to verify that the existing legal description is accurate, leaving the buyer open to the risk that their closing deed and mortgage contain errors or describe the incorrect property.
Additionally, most purchasers are unaware that if they close without a survey, their Owner’s Policy will take exception to any statement of facts a survey would have shown. This means that if the buyer files a claim for a title issue related to a problem that would have been revealed by a survey, it will likely be denied by the underwriter.
Conversely, if a survey is produced, the title company will remove the blanket survey exception from the policy and replace it with an exception specific to the survey. Also, survey endorsements affording additional coverage will be available to the buyer and lender. While a survey may not be required by the title insurance company for residential property in many states, obtaining one is highly recommended.
Whether you are purchasing real estate in San Francisco, Brooklyn or anywhere in between, a survey is an important due-diligence tool for purchasers of real property because it gives a complete, up-to-date picture of the premises. It provides clarity on boundary line issues and discloses potential problems with the locations of existing or future improvements. A new survey makes it possible for a title company to confirm that the legal description in the closing documents is correct and to give more comprehensive survey coverage in the policy, thus protecting the buyer and the lender.
While it may be tempting for a buyer to neglect this important step to save on closing costs, the benefits of obtaining a survey far outweigh the costs and allow a buyer to definitively state, “This land is my land.”
Stefanie Kane is Vice President, Regional Underwriting Counsel for Doma Title Insurance, Inc., serving the states of New York and Pennsylvania.