A boundary survey shows you exactly where a parcel's property lines are located. The survey should be performed by an experienced, licensed surveyor. The lines surrounding the property are marked with a combination of iron pins, concrete posts, or other permanent items. By referring to landmarks such as rocks and large trees, the surveyor also cuts a path along the line, which is especially helpful for visualizing property lines in wooded areas.
Sometimes the surveyor's paths, called cut-throughs, are visible for years after a survey has been performed. Visibility depends on the topography at property lines and whether the owner has attempted to keep the pathway free of weeds and other vegetation.
In some areas, surveys are a routine occurrence whenever property is sold, but in other locations, the buyer must decide whether a survey is necessary. It's always a plus to order a survey, even if your lender doesn't require it. Don't be lulled into thinking that existing fences mark the property lines. If the fencing is old, the current owner might not know who built it and whether it conforms to property boundaries. Many sellers do not know the location of their boundary lines at all.
Make your offer to purchase dependent on your approval of the resulting boundary lines. If there are problems, such as a neighboring structure that extends onto the land you are buying, you want to find out about them before you buy. The seller should be responsible for clearing up any issues that affect your use of the property due to poorly marked boundaries.
Exceptions to the Rule
Performing a survey never hurts, but sometimes you might decide it isn't necessary. If you're buying an existing home in a development, and there are surveys on file for that development, you can very likely use them to find previous survey marks. The distance between each marker should be recorded on the survey, so you can get a very good idea whether the actual markers are positioned where they should be.
In some areas, it's typical for a seller to pay for a survey. In others, it's regarded as a buyer expense, but that doesn't mean you can't ask the seller to pay for it. The seller might not agree to pay the entire cost, but you might be able to negotiate a deal to split the expense.
Furthermore, surveys that have been done in recent years can often be updated for a lower fee than a brand-new survey. If you're paying for the survey, find out who performed it last and make inquiries about an update. Always have your survey recorded at the county courthouse or an equivalent place that houses public records. You would be surprised at how often survey copies are lost by owners. If the surveyor dies or goes out of business, you might not have access to a copy unless it's part of the public records.
Surveyors generally mark property boundaries with surveyor pins — iron posts that only stick up a few inches above the ground. They become covered with leaves quite easily; if they aren't visible, you may need to use a metal detector to locate them. Surveyors also use paint to mark trees near the iron posts, or they might hang a piece of brightly covered tape from a nearby branch. Both of those methods make it easier for you to see when you are near the actual marker.
It's not common, but survey pins are sometimes secretly moved by neighboring landowners who dispute a property line. A new survey will show you where the markers should be.
Once your survey has been done, it's best to figure out a method to help you remember where markers are located. Flag the posts with brightly colored plastic tape or paint a mark on trees as surveyors do. Use any method that helps you locate your property lines quickly and easily.