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Personal and Business Banking

Home Survey Pitfalls

Homebuying and Mortgages

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Home survey shortcomings may cost you thousands

This is a true story...

Two years earlier, John bought an older home. The lot lines on his half acre looked pretty defined when he bought the home. There was a row of pines on one side and a stone wall on the other. Then his next door neighbor decided to put up a fence. A surveyor came out to mark the boundary. The surveyor determined the boundary did not run along the tree line at all. It cuts off more than half of John's driveway!

“That can't be right.”  John checked the small property survey copy they gave him at closing. The drawing showed no encroachment of his driveway on his neighbor's property. How could this happen?

The little property survey that couldn't

John's problem is an all too frequent occurrence. Whenever you buy property, particularly if the purchase is financed, a survey will be done. You typically get a copy of it at closing showing the position of the dwelling on the lot and the lot lines. What most people don't know is that this drawing is not based on a full field survey of the property you are buying.

In most cases, the surveyor gets a copy of the plat or property map on file with the county or municipality. They will take that to the site and look for new structures. They may or may not note any obvious issues with structures crossing property lines.

By not doing a thorough survey, the surveyor is likely to miss major property line problems. In some parts of the country, especially on the East Coast, property lines were originally established in colonial times when surveying equipment was primitive. This leads to more misunderstandings and problems than in other parts of the country. A surveyor in Massachusetts told us about someone who constructed a built-in pool that turned out to be on the neighbor's property. The neighbor kept it.

Does title insurance protect you?

Title insurance does not protect you against property line disputes – and that's a common misconception. Title insurance only protects you and the lender from ownership issues or liens against the property not found through the title search.

How can you protect yourself from a property line dispute?

Here are some things you should do before you purchase the property. Some may even be prudent before you make an offer...

  • Ask questions of the seller – Ask the seller to show you where all the property lines are and to walk them with you. Ask if the owner has ever had a full survey of the property completed and to show you the results.

  • Ask questions of the neighbors – Introduce yourself to the neighbors along each property line. Ask the same questions you did of the seller. If there is disagreement between the owner and neighbors' understanding of the lines, there's a potential problem.

  • Get a copy of the plat and take it to the site – Find out where the land records are kept for the town (usually a courthouse, city hall, or county office building). Purchase a copy of the plat (drawing of the property). These are part of the public record and are reasonably priced. Note the distances from the dwelling to the property lines on four sides. Go to the property with a long tape measure and see if what looks like the boundaries of the property are a close match to the plat.

  • Consider a full survey – The only reliable way to establish the location of lot lines is a full survey completed by an experienced, licensed surveyor. It won't be cheap, but might save you from unknowingly buying someone else's problem – one that might cost thousands to fix. Personnel at the Planning and Zoning Office for the county or town should be able to recommend several reliable surveyors you can talk to. If you decide to continue with the sale, make sure the surveyor puts metal spikes in the ground to identify the lines. It makes the lines easier to establish later if you want to install a fence or other structure.

So what happened to John?

An attorney recommended he negotiate buying the land from his neighbor as the cheapest solution. Negotiations dragged on for another two years. The best John could do to get his driveway back was to buy an 860 square foot triangle, less than half what he thought was his, for $5,000. On top of that, he was out $1,500 for a detailed survey showing the old and new lot lines, and another $1,000 to an attorney to draw up deeds to the triangle and record the transfer. If John had known about the problem before buying the house, he could have saved $7,500 and years of aggravation and uncertainty.