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How to find your property lines.

How to find your property lines

Your're planning to build a fence aroundyour property, but you're not sure where the line really is. Perhaps you want to widen your driveway, but it might impinge on a neighbor's lot. Or you want to expand your house or build a deck, but utility easements or property setback limits make you unsure of how close to the property line you can go. Perhaps you want to subdivide. Maybe you think your neighbor's new fence comes too close to your house.

For these or other reasons, knowing whereyour property lines really are can be useful, even essential, information. You may find they're fairly easy to locate on your own, but many situations call for a formal survey. We offer guidance on both approaches.

On your own: start with your developer, assessor's office, or title company

If you live in a housing tract, the developershould have a plot of the entire area, with your lot clearly marked. If you don't know the developer's name, call your city or county recorder's or assessor's office.

Title companies sometimes require a surveyduring a house sale, so a description may be part of your deed or title policy. If not, give the company a call and ask if it has one.

If an adjacent neighbor has had a recentsurvey, you could save a lot of time, bother, and money. New corner markers, or monuments, may be freshly in place; if not, a call to the company that performed your neighbor's survey may yield useful information. (The same company should charge less to provide a survey of your property, given that it's already established at least one adjacent boundary.)

Most parcels have been surveyed at leastonce--when the land was first divided, if at no later time. This survey of record should be available at the recorder's or assessor's office; any subsequent surveys should be there, too, with the earlier maps stamped "superseded.' But you'll likely have to do a lot of digging on your own.

Many offices now store their records onfilm; a search there will steer you to the specific map that includes your plot. There's no charge to look at records.

Deciphering the maps: tricky business

On the map, you'll find a complex arrayof dimensions, bearings, distances, acreages, significant landmarks, and--most important-indications of monuments. In the map legend, you may find notes or technical data. In many cases, boundaries are given in metes and bounds--distances and bearings given as the horizontal angle between a line and a reference meridian. These are very difficult for a layman to decipher without some help.

At this point, ask someone in the recorder'soffice to tell you what type of map or survey you have (tract, parcel, sectional, or other), and to help explain the data.

Markings on maps are not all the samefrom one jurisdiction to another; for example, an open circle at a corner could represent a hollow iron pipe placed as a monument--or, in other jurisdictions, the absence of any monument.

Furthermore, looking at just one map--ifmore are available--may not tell you the full story of your property and its rightful boundaries. This is especially true with older properties or those in rural areas, where the record can reach back a hundred years or more--even to a Spanish land grant.

The more you know about where the lineshave been drawn over time and how they've been marked, the better you'll be prepared to determine where your lot lines are. And remember that terrain changes over time. For instance, sometimes monuments are buried 1 or 2 feet underground, either to avoid their being disturbed by surface work, or by accident. One way to locate them is to rent a metal detector (about $5 a day).

If you like, you can have a blueprint copy($3 to $10) of the map made to take with you. Not all maps are equally detailed; make sure you have the significant measurements (between corners, for example) that will help you locate your boundaries at a later time.

Armed with this information, try to findany mounments on or around your property. It can seem like a treasure hunt; look for short iron pipes, wooden stakes, or small tags or brass disks affixed to concrete mounds or fences or set into the pavement, engraved marks on the sidewalk or curb--even railroad spikes or old auto axles buried in the ground. If you can't find them--or you can't find all the ones you need--you can measure as carefully as possible and mark the ground yourself.

When should you call a surveyor?

If you can't find monuments, your propertylines aren't completely straight, you plan to subdivide (and so need very precise information), or you just want to be sure that your measurements are correct, getting a formal survey can avoid potential headaches and save you time. For leads, try to get personal references or check the yellow pages under Surveyors-- Land, or Engineers--Civil.

How can you be sure of getting a goodsurveyor at a fair price? As with any service, it's wise to interview several candidates. The state licenses surveyors; from each one you are talking to, get the number of his or her license and check with the appropriate agency (such as your state board of registration) to see if he or she is in good standing. Membership in a professional association is a good sign.

To get an estimate, send the surveyors acopy of your title report--and any other information you can provide--along with a letter outlining your needs; they'll call or write you with a price or a request for more information. If you decide to go ahead, make sure to get a full agreement in writing before work begins.

What do you get in return? The surveyorshould mark the corners of your property with monuments. You get a blueprint that depicts and describes your lot, bordering lots, streets, corners, and other significant landmarks. The survey should also reveal any encroachments on your land, such as old structures, misplaced fences, or private roads.

A surveyor is legally responsible for allthe work he does and can be held liable for damages if he errs and you lose property to "adverse possession' (more in a moment)--or even if he perpetuates the errors of others before him.

Surveyors' fees. Fees depend on the complexityof the task; they'll either estimate a total or set a flat fee. For example, if you have a level suburban lot, flat fees range from $250 to $500, job-specific fees from $50 to $200 an hour. A large, irregular hillside lot with dense vegetation might cost $2,000 or more. Throw in a request to include topographical features, and fees can climb to $2,500 or higher.

One way to help bring down the cost is toprovide the surveyor with as much background information and data as you can. But be sure to ask about down payments; some surveyors require as much as 50 percent of the total before beginning actual field work.

An aerial survey? Of limited use. In somecases--in remote areas, for instance, or if you have lots of acreage and want to build from scratch--you may want to consider an aerial survey or photograph. This can give valuable information about the contours and topography of your land, but it's not legally acceptable for drawing property boundaries. Depending on the flight time, terrain, and other factors, your cost can run from $300 to more than $1,000. (For more on aerial photography, see the June 1985 Sunset.)

Adverse possession: how property can change hands without a sale

What if you discover that you've beenusing land that in fact is deeded to your neighbor, or vice versa? You or he may have a case of adverse possession, which allows a piece of property to transfer legally from the true owner to the party using it.

It's a potentially knotty problem. Theland has to have been used for an uninterrupted time, from as little as 5 years to as long as 20 years (check with your city or county recorder). There may or may not be tax consequences of gaining possession as a result of prior use--that's for the assessor's office to resolve. But simply using the land does not in itself guarantee that the user will be granted title free and clear. You may have to go to court.

If you come across an overlap, try toreach an understanding with your neighbor about how the land will be used in the future, and suggest a written agreement. If you want to file a claim, you'll probably need an attorney (your own attorney is your first choice; a real estate attorney is a more expensive specialist). Or talk to your title company about discrepancies in your deeds; some deeds do not match on a common property line. Your city or county assessor's office may be able to give you a lot-line adjustment.

Adverse possession points up another riskin doing your own survey. If you mark boundaries incorrectly, you could wind up encroaching on or forfeiting property to your neighbor.

A caution about setbacks and easements: pay attention to them

Before you begin a project, find out aboutany setback requirements. Setbacks dictate the distance between the structure and the property line, or put restrictions on the heights and locations of fences, decks, or outbuildings.

Also see if any restrictive covenants applyto your lot. These private, legally binding agreements impose constraints, for example, on height, color, and style of buildings. Along with building codes, these may determine the design and dimensions of the project you have in mind.

Photo: With surveyor, homeowner reviewsplans. Second surveyor sets up theodolite (on tripod) to measure horizontal and vertical angles. Below, she mounts prism directly above monument (corner marker)

Photo: At county assessor's office, homeownerand clerk scam microfiche--film with a dozen or more maps or records--to locate tract maps, specific plot plans

Photo: Types of monuments (corner markers) found along property lines include angle iron in concrete post (built about 2 feet high on a steep, vine-heavy slope), brass tag on fence rail, brass-headed plastic cap in street, and hollow pipe with similar cap

Photo: Professional surveyors or enginers prepare topographic survey; cost is $800 to $2,500, depending on terrain and lot size. Resulting plan details property lines, contours of land, significant natural objects, and placement of structures
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jun 1, 1987
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