If you’re buying or building a house, or refinancing your mortgage, you may need a property survey

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By Robyn A. Friedman 

Who needs a survey? If you’re buying or building a house, or refinancing your mortgage, you do.

A survey is simply a drawing of a parcel of property that is signed and certified by a professional surveyor. The most common type is called a boundary survey, and it determines the perimeter of the tract and depicts the location of the boundary lines.

A finished survey resembles a map of your property; depending on your state, it may show the location of your house and other improvements, the legal boundaries, setbacks and any easements crossing the land.

If you’re buying property, it’s wise to get a survey to confirm that the home and other improvements are located on the property as advertised, that the land parcel is accurate as listed – such as one acre – and to determine if there are any conflicting uses or claims of ownership. Buyers should also obtain a survey to verify road or driveway access, identify utility line easements, confirm building setback requirements and much more.

For example, you may assume that an existing fence straddles the property line, but it’s not unusual for fences to encroach on one side of the property line or the other. Any encroachment on your side of the property line means that your neighbor is enjoying the use of your property.

Surveys are required if you plan to build a new home or subdivide land, as well as by lending institutions when you purchase or refinance. That’s because a title insurance policy—required by the lender if you finance your purchase with a mortgage, but also wise to get even if you’re paying cash—excludes claims based on the survey unless the title company receives and approves a copy of the survey before closing.

A survey would have helped prevent a situation such as the one Gary Kent recently encountered, where a homeowner built a garage that encroached on his neighbor’s property.

“This is the largest investment most people are ever going to make,” said Kent, a professional surveyor in Indianapolis who regularly presents programs across the country on surveying topics. “A survey will help you know definitively the extent of your property.”

Kent said that surveyors are required to be licensed in every state.

Costs vary widely, based on the location and size of the parcel, the complexity of the deed description and the availability of existing boundary markers. According to Kent, they commonly start at about $400 and can run into the thousands. Consider asking the surveyor to set new markers, such as stakes or flags, so that you can easily see the corner boundaries of your property.

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