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Are All Surveys Created Equal?

By George Bryant, III, LS, Vice President, Koontz-Bryant, P.C.

Not many people realize that a physical improvement survey, a boundary survey, and an ALTA/ACSM Land Title Survey (ALTA survey) are equal in that they can all be used to transfer land. Yet they differ in the amount of field work, calculations, and liability coverage that the client receives. The New 2016 ALTA/ACSM Survey Standards will go into effect on February 23, 2016. It is important for landowners and developers to understand how an ALTA survey differs from the other types of surveys to ensure protection from possible liabilities. The new standards can be found online at www.alta.org. The website lists requirements for a land survey to meet the standards of an ALTA survey.

Knowledge is a form of protection. It is important to know that a surveyor should not make certifications that state “all easements affecting the surveyed property are shown hereon”. The liability insurance carriers for land surveyors do not insure the location of easements on land surveys, but do insure the decisions made in establishing the location of property lines shown on land surveys. Prior to 1962, an owner, purchaser, or lender had to review surveys for property line acreages and locations from a survey plat and then review easements from a title insurance binder provided by a title company. Even for an experienced individual, determining where an easement lies on a piece of property can by confusing.

The creation of ALTA Survey Standards in 1962 revolved around money and/or the lending of money. Lenders (the banking industry) were looking for a single plat or representation of property that included not only property boundaries but also the internal encumbrances on one document. They wanted a “super survey,” for lack of a better term. In order to improve the process and quality of data, the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the American Congress of Survey and Mapping (ACSM) were tasked with defining development standards that a surveyor would use to produce a plat. The outcome from the two agencies is known as the 1962 ALTA/ACSM Survey Standards which marks the beginning of the existence of ALTA surveys. The new 2016 Standards represent the eighth revision to the Standards since their adoption.

A significant difference between a standard boundary survey and an ALTA survey is the certifications that a land surveyor makes to the entities involved in preparing the survey. Broadly stated, for a boundary survey, a surveyor certifies to the client that the property lines drawn on a plat represent the boundary lines that exist on the ground. For an ALTA survey, the surveyor most often certifies to the owner, the purchaser, the lender, and the title insurance company the following: a description of the boundary of the property on the plat, the easements contained within a title binder provided by a title company, the improvements located on the property, and any physical evidence on the land that might suggest someone has rights to the use of some portion of the land.

There are two big advantages to a lender using an ALTA survey. If the property line, visible title encumbrances or the easements contained within the title binder are shown incorrectly on the plat, then the land surveyor could have a liability issue. Secondly, if an easement exists on the property that a title company did not list in the title commitment for any reason, the title company could have a liability issue. It is in the owner’s or the lender’s best interest to have as much assurance and insurance they can get relating to any issues that could affect title to a particular piece of property. Both the lender and purchaser must weigh the financial benefit of requesting an Alta survey because the costs of an ALTA survey are directly related to the increase in the work performed.

For more information contact George Bryant at 804-200-1902 or via email.