You may feel confident that you know your property lines just by looking at your house and yard. The neighbor's fence and where you mow your grass all seem to match the boundaries between other houses on your street. A fence may slightly stray, but for the most part everything seems about right.
Now imagine being so wrong about your property lines that you learn your house is built on the completely wrong lot. Even smaller mistakes or discrepancies between documents can lead to costly issues if you and a neighbor disagree over the location of your property line. To steer clear of conflicts, avoid making any changes to the edges of your property that could lead to a problem, monetary or otherwise, down the line.
Why You Must Know Your Property Lines
From permits to purchases, being able to identify your property lines accurately makes it much easier to complete a project or move forward with a transaction.
In most official cases, having a new survey done is the way to go. "Let's say, for example, you want to build a swimming pool, and you're not 100% sure where that easement is. You could have a new survey done," explains Cynthia Durham Blair, a residential real estate closing attorney based in Columbia, South Carolina, and president of the American Land Title Association.
Additionally, when you purchase a home, it's not uncommon for your mortgage lender to require a new survey be conducted on the property. Even when that's not the case, your title insurance company will likely recommend a new survey as well, so you know if the neighbor's garage reaches over onto the property or if the outdoor kitchen encroaches on a sewer easement, which could be costly to remove down the line.
Durham Blair says issues discovered in a new survey of the property may not be covered in the standard owner’s title insurance policy, but knowing those concerns before you close could help you decide if you need to renegotiate with the seller or walk away from the deal entirely.
How Do I Find My Property Lines?
Check your deed. Your property lines were established when your neighborhood was developed, whether that's 10 years or a century ago. The property lines are noted in a few different locations, including in the legal description for the lot, which would be on your property deed, and on a plat map, which is typically available through your local assessor's office or planning office.
A property's legal description is most easily found on the deed to the property, and there are a few ways the description can be written. It could simply describe the property’s exact location as it exists on the plat map, or it may include specific details with precise measurements that allow you to walk the property lines from a nearby reference point.
But being able to perfectly translate the legal description to establish the physical boundaries on your property can be quite the feat if you’re not trained to do so. Many properties have hidden markers at the corners that, if found, can help you find your boundaries, but hiring a professional surveyor to reestablish your property lines will give you the most accurate answer.
Review a plat map. A plat map shows property outlines for an entire neighborhood or area. On a standard residential street, you can expect to see rectangles all about the same size lined up on each side of the street, which signify each privately owned property. Every individual property will be labeled with an identifying number, which is the parcel number assigned when the lots were planned for separate sale and follow surrounding parcel numbers in numerical order. Your deed should note the parcel number, but you can typically find the parcel information if you look up your home through your local assessor's office, many of which have online databases.
Hire a surveyor. For existing residential properties, a surveyor specializes in making precise measurements to locate the legal boundaries of a plot of land and any improvements to the property, from the house and driveway to a swimming pool or backyard shed. Surveyors also play a vital role when developing land to determine new property lines, locate the property location of a building to meet zoning and code requirements and more.
Taking the details from the legal description and plat map, a surveyor carefully measures the legal boundaries of your property. When the original survey is completed, metal bars are often buried at the corner points of the property. To help you see the corners or boundary lines, a surveyor will likely leave wooden stakes or flags in the ground at those spots as a temporary reference for you.
The complexity of a survey depends on the geography of the area, what's on your property and what surrounds it. In an area where homes were built relatively recently and there are few trees, a survey could be completed as quickly as 30 to 45 minutes, says Mike Stanley, owner of Stanley Land Surveying, based in the Huntsville, Alabama, metro area.
But in an older neighborhood, where lots of properties have fences and established trees, "a half acre could take you two to three hours," he says.
Hiring a surveyor is certainly the most accurate way to find out your property lines, but it isn't cheap. HomeAdvisor reports the typical price range to hire a land surveyor is between $339 and $671, with the national average at just about $500. Depending on the size of your property and where you live, you could see that price rising close to $1,000, according to HomeAdvisor.
Required or not, Durham Blair points to having a new survey done – or referring to one conducted in the last few years – as a way to play it safe when buying a property and doing home improvements. Otherwise, you could find that you need to pay to remove an addition to your house, a newly constructed fence or a swimming pool because it encroaches on the neighbor's land or is going to be a part of planned road expansion. Those fixes, Durham Blair says, are "going to be problematic, and they're going to be costly."
Finding Property Lines on Your Own
Whether your local government doesn't require a survey to build a fence, or you're simply curious as to what your property lines are, you may be able to locate your property lines on your own.
"In the newest subdivisions, (homeowners) can kind of do it themselves if they're comfortable with a tape measure," says Jonathon Lord, managing partner for Carolina Land Surveying, based in Little River, South Carolina. Neighborhoods that have been developed more recently may have a permanent boundary marker on the surface of the ground – often a cap for a steel bar, or rebar, that is buried below. By following the specific details of your property's legal description, you should be able to locate your property lines from point to point.
Even if your property doesn't have visible corner markers, you may be able to hunt for those buried markers with a metal detector. The metal poles, often made of rebar, can be buried up to 10 inches below the surface. Use a metal detector until it indicates metal is there, then dig to be sure that what you've found is the marker.
Before you dig for the marker, be sure you know the location of any buried wires or irrigation systems to avoid causing damage. The universal phone number for U.S. homeowners to request buried utility information is 811, and with a few days' notice, someone from your local utility company should be able to mark county wires or pipes with spray paint.
Don't use fence lines or your neighbor’s garden as a point of reference. Just because you've assumed that's where your property ends doesn't mean it's accurate. "If the fence was built and they didn't get a survey, they built it where they thought the line would be" rather than where it actually is, Stanley says.
See which home style meets your needs.
When it comes to residential architecture, style and layout are influenced not only by prevailing artistic tastes of the period, but also by the way people live in and use their homes. In the Victorian era of calling cards and rigorously orchestrated entertaining, small reception rooms that flowed to and from formal dining rooms were ideal. Bungalows built before World War II typically have front porches, while post-war ranches and midcentury modern homes offer more private socializing and outdoor spaces. Even if you love the look of a particular architectural style, it won't necessarily suit your lifestyle and day-to-day needs. Here are seven of the most popular home styles you see in the U.S. today, as well as their pros and cons for contemporary residents.Historic brownstones and row houses
Historic brownstones and row houses
While brownstones and historic row houses are a quintessential New York City housing type, they can be found throughout the country, particularly in cities founded before 1900. Their shared walls made them easy to build on small urban lots, while their multistory layouts accommodated large families and gracious reception rooms. Row houses typically feature living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens on the parlor floor, beds and baths above and occasionally an English basement apartment or added living space on the garden level. These historic homes are coveted for their architectural detail, square footage and outdoor space, but they do have their drawbacks. Their shared walls restrict windows to the front and back facades, often leaving interiors with minimal natural light. Narrow buildings can mean smaller rooms, especially bedrooms. And while backyards are standard, you will have close neighbors on both sides.Modern and midcentury modern homes
Modern and midcentury modern homes
First introduced in the 1920s by renowned architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, American midcentury modern architecture is known for its minimalism, clean lines and openness. Modern home design closely embodies the idea that form follows function, and postwar innovations in construction led to the abundant use of new materials, including glass, steel and concrete, in place of traditional brick and wood. These houses earn high marks for their walls of windows and fantastic natural light, and open floor plans offer plenty of space to stretch out and entertain. On the downside, that abundant glass brings with it a certain lack of privacy, and those modern building materials can often leave interiors feeling stark and cold. Many modern homes look their best when sparsely furnished and ultra-tidy, so collectors and families with small children may struggle with keeping their midcentury modern looking magazine-ready.American bungalows
There's quite a bit of variation in so-called "bungalow architecture" in the U.S., with examples ranging from small, shingled Queen Anne homes to stucco Spanish Colonial styles with red-tile roofs. Common traits within the genre are single or one-and-a-half-story profiles and layouts that strive to maximize space within modest proportions. Grand entrances and space-stealing hallways are absent, and front doors open directly into living spaces. Built primarily between 1900 and 1930, these houses offered homeownership at an affordable price. And while those benefits ring true today, even the most charming bungalow can suffer from cramped living spaces, low ceilings and small lot sizes. These homes were constructed economically nearly a century ago, so you should expect to dole out money for modernization and upkeep or be careful in choosing a bungalow that's already been thoroughly updated.Ranch homes
Popularized after World War II, ranch-style homes, often called ramblers, feature boxy, single-level layouts built on a concrete slab with low-pitched roofs and wide overhangs. They are particularly common in the West and Southwest, but can be found across the U.S. Single-story accessibility is a major selling point for ranch homes, especially for those with limited mobility or for families with young kids. Their flat, square layouts provide spacious and sunny living spaces typically with sliding glass doors that open to a rear yard, but with only one floor, you'll find less separation between entertaining and sleeping quarters. However, ranches can seem bland compared to other architectural styles. They lack basement storage, and their low-slung roofs make them less than ideal in locales where the temperature dips below freezing.Center-hall Colonials
Originally inspired by its Georgian and Palladian predecessors in Europe, American Colonial architecture can be traced back to our nation's earliest settlements, especially in Virginia and Maryland. Today, colonial revival is a leading architectural style among both new and historic homes featuring a uniquely American combination of gabled roofs, dormers, columned entryways and center-hall layouts. In this configuration, you arrive in a central hallway flanked by formal living and dining rooms. Kitchens and family rooms are placed in the rear of the main floor with beds and baths above. Rooms are typically bright and spacious. On the other hand, those who gravitate toward open floor plans may find colonial home entertaining spaces overly compartmentalized.Victorians
Popular for most of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, Victorian architecture in the U.S. was heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Facades include machine-cut and tooled ornamentation and flourishes, asymmetrical layouts and steep gable or mansard roofs that are decorated with dormer windows. Today, the colorful Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies in San Francisco often come to mind, but houses of this era can be found across the U.S. in a combination of many styles and influences. Victorian homes are not for the faint of heart when it comes to maintenance and upkeep. Unless you acquire a thoroughly modernized Victorian, you can expect to put some money and effort into updating systems. Ornate woodwork and fixtures require skilled tradespeople for restoration and replacement, and these homes can be drafty if windows, insulation and walls aren't upgraded.High-rises
Not so much an architectural style as a housing type, high-rise apartments and condo buildings are the epitome of contemporary city living. Glass curtain walls deliver impeccable views, and modern construction means that systems like electrical and central air conditioning are top-notch. Within the latest luxury high-rises, residents enjoy desirable amenities, including fitness centers, roof decks, lounges, parking garages, storage and laundry facilities. However, there are downsides to living in a high-rise. Depending on the location of your apartment or condo, you could have multiple neighbors sharing walls, ceilings and floors, which makes noise and privacy a concern. Waiting for elevators is the norm with skyscraper living, and imagine walking down (and possibly back up) multiple flights of stairs if elevators need repairing. Private outdoor space is limited, and you'll pay a premium when it is available.Architectural styles to consider for your next home include:
Architectural styles to consider for your next home include:
- Brownstones and row houses.
- Modern and midcentury modern homes.
- American bungalows.
- Ranch homes.
- Center-hall colonials.
- High rises.
Updated on March 19, 2020: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.