Does Your Home Remodel Need a Land Survey?

Surveyor 90201375
Surveying Property Line. Getty / David Schaffer

Much of home remodeling means you can safely operate within your own private creative bubble.  Want hot-pink interior walls?  Go for it!  Your house is your canvas.  

But when public safety and building codes are involved, your little bubble threatens to burst.  Even when you work within the house envelope, you are beholden to your locality's codes concerning electricity, plumbing, and building safety.

 

When land or property surveys are involved, that bubble rips wide open.  It becomes immediately apparent that you exist within a world of other people.  While you always need a land survey for residential new construction, do you ever need to order one for any home remodeling projects?  If so, when?

What Is a Land Survey?

Surveyors on public properties such as roads are a common sight.  Surveyors on residential properties are less common.  

One reason, of course, is that they are tucked away on private land.  But more importantly, legal land surveys are usually not required to purchase a house.  If they were, you would see surveyors all the time, whenever a house was about to be purchased.  

If money is not an object, this doesn't mean that it's not a good idea to obtain a house location survey before going to settlement, though.  When making this big purchase more information is better than less.

 It's just not required, and few homeowners actually do this.

Land surveys establish the boundaries of the property on which your house is located.  They also show structures and other elements on your property--house, outbuildings, pools, etc.--in relation to boundaries.

Surveying is not something you can do by yourself.

 Plats and maps posted by your country recorder's office, while interesting, are not property surveys.

When Not Required

As long as your remodeling activities are within the confines of your existing home, you should not need a survey.  So, even projects as dramatic as basement finishing, moving interior walls, full-scale kitchen or bath remodeling, etc. should not provoke the need for a land survey.

When Required

In this age of "maximum height and minimum setbacks," it is becoming increasingly valuable to obtain property line surveys:

  • Tear Down/Rebuild:  Demolishing and rebuilding is considered the same as building a new home and thus triggers the need for a property line survey, building height survey, and often a topographic survey.
  • Additions:  Additions often push close to property lines and require the need for a survey.  Sometimes, your locality may define a "safety zone" that allows you to build the addition within it and not obtain a survey.  For example, you may be able to build 2 feet or farther away from a fence or other feature without obtaining a survey, as long as there are no known property line disputes.  

When Desirable

  • Fence-Building:  When a fence you intend to build shares your neighbor's property line, you may want to order a land survey.
  • Remodels Near Easements:  Easements are common, and you might might have one on your land.  Easements are "legal designations that allow individuals or entities to use portions of your property."  You still own the property and have access to it.  A typical easement is an underground sewer line.  You might build close to (or sometimes on) an easement and not hear anything about this for years--or decades.  Or you might receive notice that your chicken coop is too close to the easement and needs to be removed. 
  • Constructing Outbuilding:  Building a workshop or shed?  If it's near a property line, get a survey so that you can confidently set it down within your own property lines.
  • Remodeling Outbuilding Near Property Line:  If a workshop, studio, garage, or similar detached outbuilding is near a property line and you plan to put significant money into the remodel, it's a good idea to verify that the structure is 100% on your property.
  • Permanent Improvements on Property:  Pools, driveways, patios, garages, etc.  It's bad enough to have to move a shed.  Can you imagine finding out that three feet of your swimming pool is on your neighbor's property?