Key takeaways

  • A property survey legally defines the boundaries of a plot of land.
  • Mortgage lenders and/or title companies may require one when you’re buying a house.
  • You may also need one when making certain home renovations, or when installing a fence.

When you’re buying a home, there’s a certain amount of work required in between having your offer accepted and actually moving in. For example, homebuyers may need to get a property survey or house survey before they close on their new place.

Property surveys are done to determine or confirm land boundaries, such as the plot of land a home sits on, and any sub-surface improvements, like a septic tank or well. They also identify other types of restrictions and conditions that apply to the legal description of a property, including easements or encroachments.

Whether you’re buying a new home or building an addition onto a property you already own, you’ll probably need a property survey. Let’s explore in more detail what it is and how to get one.

What is a property survey?

A property survey is all about defining what’s yours and what isn’t. “Property surveys are performed for a number of reasons,” says Curtis Sumner, executive director emeritus of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). Typically, he says, they are used to establish boundaries when new parcels of land are being developed.

Surveys can also identify and confirm already-established land boundaries. For example, if you’re considering putting up a fence, you’ll need to know exactly where your property ends and your neighbor’s begins. That’s what a property survey helps you determine.

Depending on where you live, buying a home might require a survey to be performed. Many lenders and title companies require a copy of a survey to close on a home, but they’re not mandatory everywhere. You might also be able to use a prior survey instead of obtaining a brand-new one, provided the existing survey isn’t glaringly outdated.

Why are they important?

Surveys detail how your property is defined in an official, legal capacity. Rather than guessing where your property lines are, you have a document that makes it clear.

Property surveys are also critical for other reasons. According to Emory Wooll, president of Fort Lauderdale, Florida–based Elite Choice Title and Escrow Corp., they are required for lender title insurance policies.

“In order for a title insurance policy to be issued, we need to know if there are any encroachments on the property prior to closing,” Wooll says. “They’re usually done before a home purchase, or, say, if someone is putting a pool in or a fence.”

Wooll adds that municipalities or contractors will often require a property survey before permits can be pulled for major renovation projects such as additions. You may be able to use an older survey for this if you have one on hand, but that’s not always a guarantee — so, depending on where you live and the scope of your project, you might want to proactively commission a fresh one.

Where do I find my property’s survey?

If you’re buying a home, ask the seller to check with their lender and/or title company to see if there’s a property survey on file. The local tax assessor’s office may also have one.

If you’re already a homeowner and a survey was never provided to you, your local property records or engineering department may have one on file. But even if they do, it could be outdated. While such dated surveys are typically accurate on standard city lots, they can be wrong if you live on a former country parcel that’s been altered for suburban development. You might also try checking with neighbors to see where they got theirs.

Types of property surveys

Because there are many reasons to have a survey done, there are many different types of surveys as well. They include:

Land surveys These detail the boundaries of a parcel of land.
Topographic surveys These illustrate the plane and elevation of the land. They’re often required for site work such as road improvements.
Monumentation surveys These are done if you want to add a fence to your property.
As-built surveys These determine property lines, but also where improvements or additions can be made, like driveways and sidewalks.
Mortgage surveys Like as-built surveys, mortgage surveys show property boundaries for an entire property that will be mortgaged.
Floodplain surveys These show flood hazard areas.

When you’re requesting a property survey, be specific about why you need it. That way, when you get an estimate for the work, it’s accurate in relation to what you need done.

Once your survey is completed, it’s smart to place permanent markers in the ground at the property’s boundaries. Keep several copies of the survey in a safe place — and preferably at least one with your bank, in case of fire or other disaster.

How much does a property survey cost?

The cost depends on what type of survey you need and the property’s size, location and history. A simple boundary survey can cost anywhere from $100 to $600, while a mortgage survey for buying a house costs about $500, according to data from HomeAdvisor. A survey for fencing can run up to $1,000, while one for building a new-construction home might run up to $2,000. The more complex a property’s features and records history, the more you’ll likely pay for a surveyor’s time.

If you’re buying a home and need a survey to establish property lines or determine whether a property is in a floodplain, or if you’re required to provide the document to your lender, you will need to pay for the survey.

How to find a surveyor

Searching online for property surveyors in your area is one of the best ways to find companies to get the job done. “There is a surveying society in each of the 50 states, all of which are affiliated with NSPS,” Sumner says. “Each of those societies has a website, which will typically include a ‘Find A Surveyor’ section.”

It can be more cost-effective to work with the previous surveyor on the property, if possible, because that surveyor will have maps and records already on hand. If you can’t locate the prior surveyor, try the surveyors who assessed the properties next door. Don’t be afraid to ask your title company or lender for recommendations, too.

Sumner advises checking to make sure a surveyor is licensed to practice in the state where the property is located. You should also take the time to question your potential surveyor. Talk about your needs beforehand to make sure they can fulfill the requirements.

How long will the process take?

Sumner says there’s no way to determine exactly how long it’ll take to complete a property survey since there are so many variables to consider, including the quality and availability of property records, such as deeds.

They can usually be done within a week, says Wooll. But it could take up to three weeks or more from start to finish, depending on the company and their current backlog. As is true of so many tradespeople at the moment, demand is high, so wait times can be longer than what they were before the pandemic.

Bottom line

Whether you’re closing on a home, planning a major addition or putting in a fence, knowing your property’s precise boundary lines can help avoid costly headaches and disputes with neighbors later on. You might not need a property survey done before buying a home, but in some cases, your lender or title company might require one, so make sure you’re prepared.