Why You need a Survey

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As architects, we have worked on hundreds of projects over several decades. We often hear questions such as, “I just bought a house. I’d like to do a little upgrade and addition. I need to know where to start. What do I do?” The short answer is, “Get a survey.” Read on for more details.

A. What Do I Own?

1. Boundaries

A basic Boundary Survey answers this question. It will let you know where your property lines are located so that you don’t build on someone else’s property. It can also tell you if someone else has built on your property, whether inadvertently or on purpose.

Not too long ago, we advised someone in a situation where a neighbor had built a garage on her mother’s property after her mother was placed in a nursing home. He apparently believed no one would notice. He used an unlicensed builder and built without a permit. The owner’s daughter obtained a survey and used it to force the neighbor to demolish his unwanted building, compensate her mother for the trespass, and recover her attorney fees.

Maybe you bought your house and you didn’t have to have a survey when you bought it. That’s the case in many places now, even though it’s unwise. You should get a survey because you’ll need it sooner than later. Southeast Studios Principal Architect Greg Mix mentioned the following:

“My father and mother were in the real estate business all of their lives.  A survey used to be required before one could apply for a mortgage.  After all, how could you know what you were buying without having it surveyed?  At some point in the late nineties this requirement was dropped.  This seems very irresponsible.”


A good survey by a competent, state licensed surveyor is the best way to provide your architects with essential information they will need before they can begin the design process.  In fact, we recommend that you consult an architect and a surveyor before you purchase the land.

Yet that isn’t all that needs to be shown in a survey if you’re planning a project. To be useful in designing your building, the survey should describe features of your property, legal and other restrictions, and show nearby utility access.

B. What Features are on my Property?

The features of your property that need to be shown on your survey for planning purposes include:

  1. Topography, Soil Conditions, & Erosion Control;
  2. Flood Plains, Wetlands, & Waterways;
  3. Trees, Archaeological Sites, and other conditions.

1. Topography, Soil Conditions, and Erosion Control

Topography shows how much your property slopes. This is a very important influence on the cost of construction, type of foundation (slab, crawl space, basement, or piers, for example), good drainage and moisture management, views onto and off of the property, and other factors.

Recently, some clients purchased one of the last remaining residential lots in an older golfing community and inquired about our design services for a custom residence. We found that there was a reason why no one had built on this lot.

We asked them to get a survey and referred them to a Civil Engineer/Surveyor whom we trust.  We reviewed their survey with the Civil Engineer and discovered it to be very steep, seventy-five feet up from front to rear, plus it had a Stream Buffer running down one side of it.  The cost of building on the site was simply too high — and that’s if we could even design a driveway that was not too steep to meet safety standards!

These folks are now stuck with a piece of property that will be very difficult to sell. It’s hard to sell a piece of land once you discover it is unsuitable for your intended purpose, especially if zoning legally restricts it to one type of use.  Having learned about these conditions, real estate disclosure laws may now require that they inform any prospective buyer of them.

You can see from this illustration why it’s important to ask for a Topographic Survey, as well as a basic boundary survey. It will show the contours of your land, usually for every two feet of rise or fall, and your architect will use those to help place the house for maximum advantage.

While surveys do not show hidden soil conditions, obvious surface soil features, such as rock outcroppings may be recorded. If these visible conditions so indicate, you may choose to have geotechnical engineers test your soil either before purchasing the property or before planning a construction project. This can save you from cost disasters, such as having to blast underground rock, or correcting for soil that’s too soft to support your foundation.

Nowadays, our society is very concerned with the quality of water. It’s shown that soil erosion is a major contributor to pollution of our rivers, streams, and lakes, and the law requires individual property owners to protect others off of their property from anything that flows off of their land. “This means YOU!”

Another function of the topographic survey is to allow for the design of erosion control measures in the final site plan of your project, and it will almost certainly be required in order to obtain a building permit. Worse, if it isn’t done, anyone nearby, such as neighbors, and some folks far away, such as river advocacy groups, can file legal complaints against you and can sue you for substantial sums of money.

It may seem a bit more costly to obtain a survey that includes this information, but it’s cheaper than fixing the problems later.

2. Flood Plains, Waterways, & Wetlands

Surveyors are required to identify the presence of known flood plains, based on maps from the government. You will either see a note on your survey stating that the property is not in a flood plain or you will see a contour on the topographic portion identifying the location of the flood plain. This has very important building placement, construction cost, risk, and insurance implications, so be sure you are aware of these.

Federal, state, and local governments now place substantial restrictions on how close construction may come to creeks, streams, lakes, swamps, and other protected bodies of water. These restrictions were not always there, so you may see older construction that intrudes into such areas. In some instances, it may mean that you cannot add onto an existing building, much less build anything new. Be sure your survey identifies any such waterways that may affect your project.

The Federal Government severely restricts any form of land disturbance in any areas identified as “wetlands”. These areas are major filtration areas that help keep other waterways clean, and their ecological balance is often very sensitive to any intrusion. This is why these restrictions carry such extreme penalties. These areas are administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must consider any request for a permit to disturb them. Just because you get a local building permit does not mean that you are clear to build in a Federally identified wetland, so be sure your survey identifies such areas on your property or states that no such conditions exist.

3. Trees, Archaeological Sites, and other Conditions

This is a catch-all, but it’s a reminder not just to use this or any other list blindly.

sample survey by Gaddy Surveying and Design

Many communities are concerned about excessive tree loss, so there are often ordinances to protect against their undue removal. Often, there are fees for this removal and even more substantial fines for removing trees without first obtaining a permit. You will want your surveyor to identify any trees larger than a bole diameter of about 3”-4”, or whatever size your local tree ordinance may specify. From that, a “tree-save plan” will be prepared, if required as part of your building permit documents.

Sample Survey by Gaddy Surveying and Design

More rarely, places of significance may be discovered that can interfere with successful completion of your project. If you are in an area known for past presence of ancient cultures, old battlefields, cemeteries, and similar cultural artifacts, it may  be prudent to try to identify the possible location of such places ahead of time, rather than having construction halted, offending those with an interest, or having the future value of your property affected negatively.

C. How am I Restricted?

Not all restrictions will be recorded on a land survey, although some are able to be shown, while others must be shown on a site plan in order to receive a municipal building permit or permission from a homeowner association (HOA) to start construction.

1. Zoning

Zoning restrictions occur at the local government level. These include:

a. usage restrictions;

b. building envelope restrictions;

c. lot coverage & floor area ratio limitations.

Usage restrictions regulate activities on a piece of property and are enforced by withholding building permits for non-conforming uses. For example, it is usually difficult or impossible to establish hazardous manufacturing facilities immediately adjacent to single family residences without substantial distances and buffers. It is common for a survey to cite the “zoning district” from the local zoning map. You should ask your surveyor to provide this information.

Common pieces of information on surveys will include “building setback lines” and similar building envelope restrictions. These establish closest distances from the property lines at which owners may locate their buildings. These “no-build zones” are called front, side, and rear yards in most zoning ordinances. Ask ahead of time to be sure your surveyor will show these.

In addition, there will likely be setback lines from various easements that might cross your property. These could include underground utilities, waterways and certain protected features such as trees, cemeteries, and others.


2. Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CCR’s)

CCR’s are additional restrictions on the use of property in planned communities. These are in addition to zoning regulations and are enforced by the homeowners association (HOA) of the community. These rules will be registered with the county, and the HOA will have legal authority to enforce them. Among many others, they may include:

a. architectural guidelines, often aesthetic, or setting home size ranges;

b. accessory structure & fencing limitations;

c. landscaping requirements;

d. parking and other activity restrictions.

These are not readily shown on land surveys. Landscaping requirements sometimes require that a landscape plan by a Registered Landscape Architect  (RLA) be submitted for review by an Architectural Control Committee prior to being allowed to start construction. This may be produced as an overlay on your survey, so you may wish to put the RLA in touch with your surveyor.

D. Utilities

Utilities are important pieces of information on your survey for several reasons. First, your architect will need to know where they enter your property in order to show connections to your proposed building. Second, if any utilities cross your property, there will likely be restrictions on your uses of the property in those locations. (You really didn’t want to rip open that gas pipeline to put in your foundation, did you?)

a. water supply;

b. sanitary sewers;

c. storm drainage;

d. power supply;

e. buried cable;

f. fuel supply (often natural gas).

Some of these will be underground, such as water supply lines, sewers, and storm drainage pipes, while others may either be buried or overhead, such as power lines and cable. Be sure that your surveyor shows these conditions, as they may substantially affect your building design and placement on your land.

Reviewing your survey is part of our standard Pre-Design Phase services. Look for future posts on steps to take in preparing to work with an architect in designing your building construction project.

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