How Do I Get My Hands on a Property Survey?

Dear Real Estate Adviser,

I'm looking at putting up a fence in my yard, but my homeowners association requires a survey showing where the fence will be before approval. Is a survey something I would have gotten when I bought the house? 

- Katie

Dear Katie,

You may not have received a survey when you bought the place because they are not mandatory in every jurisdiction. Still, there's a pretty good chance one exists somewhere.

For the record, a property survey, often called a cadastral survey, serves to create a permanent record of property lines, easements and land placement. You've probably seen one of those hard-hat wearing people on the side of a road peering through a tripod-mounted compact telescope called a theodolite, which measures the vertical and horizontal angles on a property to provide the triangulation necessary to create a survey.

Oftentimes, lenders, title companies or both require a copy of a survey to close on a home purchase. If you can't find yours -- assuming you ever needed one for your transaction -- check to see if either entity has a copy on file. The local tax assessor or tax collector may also have one.

That's Not the Only Place to Look

Even if a survey was never conveyed to you, your local property records or engineering department may have one on file, albeit probably an older version. While such dated surveys are typically accurate on standard city lots, they can be wrong if you live on a former country parcel that's been altered for suburban development.

Possible shortcut to all these inquiries: Ask neighbors where they got theirs.

Why the HOA is So Nosy

In case you're wondering, your HOA, in requesting a survey, wants to make sure your planned fence won't encroach on a neighboring property and conforms to its uniform standards such as no chain-link fences, no purple fences, etc. (In fact, be sure to get the type of fence you want approved by the HOA first; don't expect your fence company to know the rules and regulations or to get HOA approval for you.)

How to Get a New Property Survey

There's an outside chance you'll need to have a new survey drawn and if that's so, contact a local engineering firm or your Realtor, who likely knows several. A surveyor should be able to examine your deed and its property description, as well as any remaining property markers such as iron pins and small monuments to draw a new one. The bad news is that simple residential surveys can cost from $250 to $1,000. While there's plenty of advice online about how to draw your own survey, most HOAs and organizations requesting one will want to see a professional version.

This is probably more than you wanted to know about surveys. Good luck!

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