What is a Property Search? (with photos)

A surveyor using a theodolite to inspect a property.

A property survey is a sketch or map of a piece of land showing property boundaries and physical features such as rivers, streams and roads. Some surveys also look at topographic information such as altitude and soil density; Residential documents often show the location of homes and other structures as well. In most cases, these maps are treated as official records and can be used to resolve property disputes, calculate land value, and determine ownership history, among other things. The way surveys are prepared and what exactly they contain can vary from place to place, and much depends on the type of property in question. The main objectives – namely the creation of a permanent record of land placement and property boundaries – are more or less consistent across the board.

residential surveys

Architects can use a property search to decide the scope of their work.

Property surveys can be done for residential, commercial and undeveloped land, and they tend to follow slightly different rules in each category. Residential surveys are generally the most common and come in two basic forms. The first is a “house location” survey, which is sometimes also called a “drive-by” survey, and its purpose is to show the location of the house and other large structures on the property, as well as the orientation of these structures in relationship to each other.

A property search will include rivers and streams.

More detailed surveys, often called cadastral surveys, generally contain much more information. While home location maps give homeowners a sense of what is present and where, a cadastral document usually provides some sense of authority with regard to property boundaries, easements, and boundaries. Surveyors typically go to the property and take real-time measurements, which are compared to archived land records to create a more complete picture of where it is located.

Considerations for commercial land

Property surveys can be conducted to determine a property’s value for an impending sale.

Commercial property maps sometimes include the location of buildings and structures, but often focus on zoning boundaries and property use restrictions. “Zoning” is a process used by many local governments to control what kind of activity can take place on a particular piece of land. Most zones are drawn using a grid over wide areas; a property search can give business owners a good idea of ​​where they fall on this grid.

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A cadastral map is part of a property survey.

Locally owned easements and passes are also often an important part of these searches. Many cities and towns require that certain portions of privately owned land be kept clear of obstructions to allow local authorities access to repair and maintain items such as utility lines, sanitation services, and natural gas pipelines. Companies that violate or obstruct these easements are often subject to fines.

undeveloped property

Vacant land surveys are generally much simpler than residential or commercial projects and, in most cases, involve little more than an observation of property boundaries and easements. Pre-existing land rights are also important. In many forests, for example, loggers and naturalists are allowed to enter and use resources freely; Undeveloped beach lands often have access rights for local residents. This information is often seen in land surveys as a way of controlling not only where the land is, but also how it is used.

who does the topography

Landowners can often do their own surveys quite accurately by studying land records and looking at official municipal documents, but this type of “home” survey is unlikely to be definitive. Most people hire impartial third-party surveyors to draw more reliable maps. These individuals sometimes work for independent research firms, although they may also be appointed by the courts or other government entities.

Role in land transactions

Property searches are most often conducted when land is being sold. Buyers and sellers often want a clear picture of where boundaries and easements are, and setting precise boundaries can also help when it comes to setting a fair price. Many local laws and regulations require sellers to also include official surveys in their sales documents. This creates a permanent official record and can also help prevent errors or fraud.

Importance for mortgage lenders

Mortgage lenders often want a survey before they will loan money to either residential or commercial investors, and many title insurers require this as well. Even if this has been done in the past, lenders typically want something very recent, often dated within six months of the closing date. An up-to-date property survey will reflect any recent changes to the property, like the addition of a fence or driveway; it will also make note of use changes, like the transition from a restaurant to an office building. The report gives everyone involved in a land transfer a clear picture of exactly what is being purchased, as well as an up-to-date sense of the land’s real-time value, taking inflation and current land prices into account.

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dispute resolution

Detailed maps can also be very useful when it comes to providing an authoritative view on where, exactly, one person’s land stops and the other’s begins. Disputes between neighbors over property boundaries are fairly common. The property survey itself may be enough to settle a more amicable dispute, but for issues, like when one neighbor bigger wants to build something on land the other wants to build something on her, the matter may have to be decided in court. Judges almost always require an objective property survey in these cases, sometimes actually performed by a court-appointed surveyor. Newer documents are often compared with older surveys on file with the city or county in order to make a ruling about who owns what.

Commercial disputes often use these sorts of documents to determine what can or cannot be done with certain property. A business owner who wants to set up something like a slaughterhouse or a junk yard — both things that would affect other neighboring businesses and their clients — may order a survey to make sure that he or she is within the right zone for the activity, or to clarify whether or not there is enough space. Local laws usually require a certain distance between so-called “nuisance” businesses and neighbors, and a property survey can be a definitive way of seeing if those space requirements are being met.


Particularly when it comes to residential property, renovations are another common reason to get a survey done. People looking to add things like swimming pools or sheds, or who want to extend rooms outwards, must usually first figure out where their property boundary sits. Homeowners who unknowingly encroach on a neighbor’s land often bear the cost of tearing down and relocating renovation projects, which can be very expensive and unpleasant. In most cases, this applies to landscaping projects, too. A person who plants trees or shrubs in what he only thinks is his yard dele may be unwittingly giving them to his neighbor.

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Tax Assessment

Many countries and localities assess property tax based on relative land size and value, and many taxation authorities consult surveys to come up with baseline assessment figures. Property tax is often somewhat complex and depends on the value of both the land and any structures. Surveys are not usually entirely definitive in this realm, but they can offer a starting point. They give tax officials a good idea of ​​how big land is, which can help them calculate how much it’s worth; they can also give landowners some sense of how taxes will be assessed and an estimate of what they’re likely to owe.

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