The word “survey” is generally used to refer to a line drawing that illustrates the location of the boundaries of a piece of land, any structures or other “improvements” on the land (e.g., fences, roadways, or sidewalks), and any portions of the land where others may have rights to use the land for specific purposes (e.g., easements that have been granted to third parties for utility lines or roads). The term is also used to refer to the procedures of measurement and boundary location used in order to produce this drawing.
There are many types of surveys that serve many different purposes. At the web site of Flatirons Surveying, you’ll find some first rate information on the many types of surveys that exist and on the surveying practices that are used to produce them.
The Use of Surveys in Real Estate Practice
Through most of the 1990s, lenders and title companies in our area typically required that surveys be completed on every single-family home that was sold.
In residential subdivisions, they typically required a survey called an “improvement location certificate” or ILC. An ILC shows the boundary lines of the lot, the location of major improvements (especially structures such as the house, any decks, and the garage), as well as any easements. ILC’s were used to confirm that structures were within the boundary lines of the lot, that the structures on neighboring lots didn’t overlap the boundaries of the lot, and that the structures on the lot didn’t encroach on easements on the lot (e.g., that the deck wasn’t built over the area reserved for underground utility lines).
While these routine ILCs sometimes uncovered problems, most lenders and title companies in Colorado have quit requiring ILCs in connection with most residential purchases. Because there were powerful incentives to keep the costs of ILCs low, their accuracy and reliability were also low. An ILC would often indicate that there wasn’t a problem when there was, and they might indicate a problem that a more accurate and expensive survey would demonstrate did not in fact exist.
As a real estate buyer, you can choose to have a survey whether or not the lender and Title Company require it. A survey that will provide definitive information may cost you several thousand dollars. It generally doesn’t make sense to lay out this kind of money unless you have reason to think there’s a problem. One option is to pay $150 or so for an ILC as a screening mechanism. If there are structures that appear to be very near important lot lines or easements, you might then decide to pay for a more exacting and expensive survey to resolve the issue. You should give serious consideration to doing this if you are buying in a very old subdivision, if there are significant structures that were built some time after the original home, or if buildings or other improvements seem to be very close to the apparent lot lines.
Surveys of Mountain or Rural Real Estate
For mountain and rural property, where the land and land boundaries are often critical to defining property values, sophisticated and expensive surveys are a common element in the purchase process. In many cases, the seller will pay for the survey in order to provide the buyer with a clear “picture” of what they are buying. If you are buying vacant land on which to build a new home, obtaining good surveys is critical and often expensive. If you don’t obtain a survey before you buy the lot, you’ll probably have to before you begin construction anyway.
Surveyors have extensive certification and licensing requirements, so a reasonable level of competence is to be expected. If you want a surveyor for a particular property, it is often worthwhile to call several companies who work in the area. If they’ve recently done a survey of a neighboring lot, or of the property you are purchasing, they will typically charge much less, often because they’ve already precisely located a nearby point from which they can begin the job of survey your property.