When you look at your house and yard, you're fairly confident you know your property lines. The neighbor's fence and where you mow your grass all seem to match the boundaries between other houses on your street. A fence here and there may slightly stray into someone else's yard, but for the most part everything seems about right.
Now imagine being so wrong about your property lines that your house is built on the completely wrong lot.
It’s happened before. Jonathon Lord, managing partner for Carolina Land Surveying, based in Little River, South Carolina, recalls a situation when a house was built without having a survey done. Instead, the builder and homeowner eyeballed the spot they felt would be right for the house.
"Come to find out they were on the common area (for the neighborhood) and not the actual lot," Lord says. The homeowner ended up having to purchase the common space from the homeowners association to right the error.
Much smaller mistakes, or discrepancies between documents, can lead to costly issues if you and a neighbor disagree over the location of your property line, whether it's a couple inches or a couple yards. 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 percent 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 the 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?
Your property lines were established when your neighborhood was originally developed, whether that's 10 years ago or a century ago. The property lines are noted in a couple 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 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 are 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.
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 bounds, though hiring a professional surveyor to reestablish your property lines will give you the most accurate answer.
Here are your options for finding your property lines:
Hiring 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 entirely 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 up 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 or take out 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," Lord says. 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 the 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 go hunting 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 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 within 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, however. 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.
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.