Understanding how to read a land survey is a critical aspect of dealing with real estate but for so many people the prospect of doing so can be quite puzzling.
To properly read a land survey you must ensure that the document is authentic and has been conducted by a professional surveyor. Next, you must review that the survey has a drawing and a report. Lastly, you will analyze the dimensions, measurements, and characteristics of the land survey.
If you have ever taken a look at a land survey with untrained eyes, it is easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of information that this important document contains. There are dozens of intricate lines, measurements, and drawings that all indicate the qualities and dimensions of a plot of land, but having a legitimate understanding of what it all means is easier said than done. If you are in the process of surveying land to buy or sell a property, you are going to want to be as thorough with your analysis as possible. This document will essentially indicate all of the crucial aspects of the property being reviewed and making miscalculations can have dire consequences that result in serious complications or in some cases - even legal action. To ensure that you are equipped with all of the right information to read a land survey, we are going to take you through the entire process.
I have had a lot of in-depth experience reading and analyzing land surveys. My experience has taught me that the most important things that you need to do to read a land survey are to ensure that the information on the document is correct by hiring a reputable surveyor and to be as thorough with your analysis as possible.
Table of Contents
Reading A Land Survey
At first, the idea of reading a land survey can seem incredibly intimidating, as there is a lot that goes into this document. A land survey will essentially contain all of the information pertaining to your property’s dimensions and characteristics. It is absolutely critical that all of the information on your land survey is correct - given that this is the document that you will reference when either buying or selling land.
The equipment used to survey land has greatly improved in recent years and it continues to only become more advanced on a regular basis. This fact alone can cause complications with reading a land survey, as some of these documents have been subject to human or technological error. If your land survey was conducted recently and it was done so by a professional surveyor who is affiliated with a reputable organization, then chances are that you probably have a legitimate document on your hands with concrete information.
With that being said, this is not always the case. It is quite common that I see land surveys presented to me by landowners that are well past their expiration date. Some documents that I have been handed were conducted decades ago or even upwards of 50 years (or more). More often than not, these land surveys are not completely accurate and either have minor measurement mistakes or are completely off, which can cause a lot of issues for real estate transactions. The general rule of thumb when it comes to reading a legitimate land survey is to ensure that it has been done within the last 5 to 10 years.
Having a professional and accurate survey in front of you is the first and most fundamental step in properly reading a land survey. At the end of the day, you cannot base any of the measurements, details, and characteristics of a property on an illegitimate document. Once you have procured a professional survey, you can jump into analyzing the document. Keep reading to learn more about how to read a land survey.
If you are reading a land survey, then you are most likely doing so because you are either buying or selling a residential property or a commercial business. While the qualities that you want to look for when assessing these two different real estate classifications may be different, ultimately, the majority of the same rules will apply to analyzing the document - regardless of what kind of property it is.
Before you dive into reading your survey, you want to make sure that all parts of the document are accounted for. While the primary document that you will be reviewing will be the drawing of the property, which will have your measurements and land characteristics on it, you also want to ensure that your survey has a report attached to it. A professional land surveyor will have conducted a written report of the property while they were taking their measurements.
This report is vital for the authenticity of your land survey as it will be a reference for you to double-check the information that is on the drawing, but it will also be the document that you will utilize to legally validate the measurements on the survey. A land survey that does not have the validated assurance of a professional surveyor is essentially useless given that the information could be fabricated.
Once you have all of the essential components of your survey in front of you, you are going to want to look at some of the defining overview characteristics of the document. Every land survey that you look at will have a legend that signifies the markings on the drawing. These markings are vital for you to properly read your land survey as they will be your reference guide when analyzing the property’s details. Let’s take a closer look at these components in more detail.
The drawing of the property will be presented to you by your surveyor. This will in many ways look like the blueprint of the entire piece of real estate that is being analyzed.
A well-surveyed drawing will have intricate measurements that indicate all of the property’s dimensions and characteristics. If you are even slightly familiar with the shape and size of the land that you are reviewing, you should be able to see an image of the property that can be easily recognized on the drawing.
Try to get a quick general overview of the property’s representation on the drawing before you begin going into an in-depth analysis of the survey. There is no point in wasting time reading a land survey that clearly does not match the essential characteristics of the land that you are looking at.
This can be especially important to check if you are handling multiple real estate properties at once and want to avoid wasting time and making miscalculations for multiple properties.
As mentioned above, every single property drawing that you look at will have a legend attached to it to help you connect the dots of the survey details with a listed guide.
A legend will normally be found in any of the corners of the drawing. You can spot this as a small box that has a number of different colors, shapes, patterns, or lines that will help you associate the information on the drawing to the components of the real estate.
This is an important aspect of your survey to get an overview of, as you want to confirm that there is a legend, to begin with, but also that some of the essential details of the legend are listed.
There is no point wasting your time reading a survey/legend that is missing information such as utility access points or primary structures. Take a quick look at the survey to ensure that you do not see any vital information missing before you begin doing an in-depth analysis of the document.
Your report is going to be as important as your drawing to complete your survey. This will look like somewhat of a book report which was created by your surveyor.
The first and foremost thing that you want to check is that the titled information of the report exactly matches the details of the property’s description. You should see your name or the landowner’s name printed on the front cover of the survey report.
In addition to the name, there should be the address of the property clearly listed on the report. Underneath this, there must be the signature of the surveyor who conducted the report, which should be next to the name of the organization that they are representing.
Once you open your survey report, you should see a table of contents that will detail the overview of the report so that you can easily reference various sections of the document during your in-depth analysis.
After you have done a general overview of your survey and feel that all of its necessary components are in order and accounted for, you can begin conducting an in-depth analysis of the survey.
While you analyze the survey of the property, you want to take your time with your review of the document. This is a critical phase of handling real estate transactions and making miscalculations can result in a lot of issues later on. It is highly advisable that you take notes during the entire process of your survey analysis. This is very helpful if you have specific characteristics or dimensions in mind for the property, as you can write down confirmations during your review.
If you do have specifications for the property, it would make sense to create a checklist in your note sections prior to your analysis, as this will make your survey reading much more efficient and organized. You may find that you are able to spot issues with the survey and/or the property while you do your reading. If that is the case, you are going to want to indicate anything that is out of order in your notes so that you can easily reference any mistakes, queries, or questions later on.
Understanding the exact positioning of the real estate in relation to the survey can sometimes be a challenge in itself. If you are dealing with a property that does not have a lot of variation, indicators, or is simply a complex piece of real estate, then understanding the position of the land can be quite confusing.
Analyzing your survey with your positioning off is not the right way to start your reading. You are going to want to get your survey lined up property so that you can begin making an accurate reading.
More often than not, a well-made survey will have indicators on it that point you in the right direction so that you do not make this mistake. This can usually be seen in a reference that the surveyor made to various landmarks that surround the property or through a compass that indicates the position of the property.
Any survey that you look at will have a variety of different indicators on it that detail the characteristics of the property.
If you are analyzing a piece of undeveloped real estate, then these characteristics should be relatively straightforward to understand, as they will mainly show you what the primary barriers of the property are.
However, if the property has been developed and has permanent structures or buildings on it, then you can expect there to be a lot more information pertaining to the property’s characteristics and qualities. This kind of survey will include characteristics such as:
- Utilities - the various utilities that are connected to the property, as well as their access points will be listed on the survey. These would be utilities like water, gas, and electricity.
- Fences - any fences that the property has on it (no matter their size) will be listed on the survey, so long as they are permanent.
- Property Lines - the official property lines of the plot will be clearly indicated on the survey. These will show you exactly where the property starts and where it ends.
- Buildings - the largest characteristic of any land survey is a primary building that is found on it. A building will be drawn out with its dimensions listed.
- Permanent Structures - additional structures will be drawn out on the survey so long as they are permanent. These will can be seen as property characteristics such as sheds and secondary buildings.
- Points of Entry - any entrances to the property will be indicated on the survey. Entry points can be seen as the various doors that are located in a building, as well as driveways.
- Walkways - if the property has any defined paths on it, these will be drawn out and detailed in the survey.
- Roadways - roadways are a common characteristic detailed on land surveys. If you are dealing with a private residence, then a roadway is often listed to indicate the position of a public road in relation to the property. However, large properties may have private roadways, which will also be listed (if there are any).
- Natural Characteristics - if the property has any notable natural qualities these will be indicated in the survey. These are natural features such as trees, shrubs, rivers, and lakes.
The characteristics that are marked on the survey will often be directly indicated on the drawing of the document, which makes spotting things like permanent structures much easier.
However, you may find that complex drawings and properties are often minimized with these kinds of indicators. If that is the case, you will find that these drawings have been designed in a way where the characteristics of the property are signified primarily through patterns, shapes, or abbreviations.
To ensure that you are analyzing the characteristics of the survey correctly, you should carefully confirm what they are in the legend of your drawing and within the contents of your survey report.
Measurements and Analysis
As you look at the drawing of your survey, you are going to see a lot of different numbers and lines that are throughout the document.
These numbers will primarily indicate all of the measurements of the characteristics of the property being reviewed. Very basic land surveys may have the exact measurements of the property listed right on the survey, which will generally be seen in inches, feet, or square feet.
However, most sophisticated surveys (especially those for complex properties) will have a scale to indicate the size, length, and dimensions of the property. This scale will be located on the drawing of your survey in any of the corners of the document. Similar to an atlas, you will find a line that indicates a measurement, such as 1 inch represented on the survey is equivalent to ‘x’ amount of feet in physical/real length.
In addition to the length of a property’s characteristics, you will also see numbers that indicate the angle of the object being reviewed. This would include an additional number that has a letter next to it such as ‘90’ followed by ‘NW’. This would imply that the object is pointed 90 degrees in the direction - North West.
Now that you understand how to read the measurements of your survey in relation to the angle of the various features of the property, you can begin making a calculated analysis of the dimensions of the land and all of its components. As you do this, you should not rely exclusively on the drawing of your survey.
Your report will be extremely useful during your land survey reading, as it will help you confirm all of what you read in your drawing. The report will often clarify aspects of the survey that are not as easy to read, as the surveyor will usually try to make your reading as intuitive as possible.
In addition, your surveyor will likely have left notes in parts of the report for you to review during your reading. This would include any parts of the survey that seem unclear but it will also have useful information for any specifications that the surveyor made to isolated areas of the property.
Professional land surveyors are well versed in analyzing properties and will commonly list issues with the land such as missing components, misalignments, and other errors. You are going to want to pay attention to any indications of this in the notes of your report, as they are often the critical issues that you do not want to overlook when reading a survey.
Abbreviations and Specifications
When reviewing a land survey, it is important to understand that each property and survey that you assess will be different.
Although survey organizations often follow a similar formula for creating their measurements and analysis, they do often differ in how they are presented in document form.
You should expect measurement calculations to be rather predictable but abbreviations for your land characteristics may vary. Here are some examples of common characteristic abbreviations.
- IR - an IR will indicate an iron rod that is in place in any part of the property.
- CM - if the property has any concrete monuments on it, they will often be represented with a CM
- WF - fences that are made out of wood will generally be marked with a WF
- MF - steel gates or metal fences will usually be labeled as MF
- WM - any indication of a WM on a survey usually means that there is a water meter located there
- AC - any markings such as AC normally show that there is a measurement of one acre (this is commonly seen on larger properties)
- SF or SQF - is a common indicator of square feet
In addition to reading abbreviations on your land survey, you are going to want to catch any specifications that are marked on the document. Some common specifications that you will see are things like shared borders and easements.
This would imply that there is a unique circumstance on a part of the property where the ownership rights are left in a grey area. More often than not, it is not a huge issue, as a shared border or fence rarely leads to too many legal or development complications. However, if the easement or specification has complex or unclear conditions, you are going to want to be wary of what they are so that you understand them fully. These will generally be highlighted in detail in your survey report.
About THE AUTHOR
Brittany has been in the land business since 2020 when the world was starting to shut down because of COVID-19. Since then, we’ve sold to dozens of people from ATV weekend warriors to camping enthusiasts to retired truck drivers. Our inventory spans mostly in the western United States. We’ve been trained by experience, land acquisition courses, and hundreds of hours meeting with county assessors and clerks, zoning officials, realtors, and land investors. We’ve answered hundreds of questions from people regarding the buying and use of land.Read More About Brittany Melling