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By Douglas M. Allwein, PLS

A boundary survey can be one of the more enlightening investments a current or a prospective property owner can make. Whether it is your personal property or your business, knowing exactly what you have can help avoid problems in the future.  Although the examples I will provide in this writing are somewhat cliché, you should consider that as a testament of how often boundary discrepancies actually do occur. My goal is not to scare you, but just to make you aware of certain possibilities.

We have all heard of the fence discrepancy. If one were to build a fence, typically the first thing they would eliminate to reduce their project budget is the boundary survey. So, they build a fence over their line and onto their neighbor’s property. Although the person may have had good intentions and may have had a good idea of where the line is, it does not alter the fact that the fence is encroaching on their neighbor’s property.   

The neighbor then suspects that the fence is over their line, so they order a survey. The surveyor confirms that the fence is over the line, so the neighbor’s lawyer sends a nice letter requesting that the fence be removed. Now they have to relocate their fence, which will likely cost more than a survey would have. Plus, they have strained their relationship with their neighbor.

Perhaps the fence encroachment goes unnoticed for many years. The unknowing neighbor has been paying taxes on a property that they cannot even enjoy. If either neighbor were to sell, a survey could open up a can of worms. Although surprises are quite common in real estate, nobody really likes them. This is the best opportunity for a prospective buyer to order a survey, which would identify the fence issue.

So, a new person buys the property with the fence and then the neighbor orders a survey. Guess who is now responsible for moving the fence. Yes, the new owner. Had a survey been performed prior to and as part of the property sale, the buyer could have asked the seller to resolve the fence issue, or walk away from the deal altogether.

If one was considering buying the other property, they could avoid the fence issue altogether with a survey. I can’t speak for everyone, but I wouldn’t want to pay taxes on a property I can’t even access. I also wouldn’t want to purchase a property where I need to fight with my new neighbor. Some of these disputes can get very nasty, and is usually best to avoid them altogether. I am no attorney, but I’m sure there are many which can describe to you the nightmares of drawn out litigation if an agreement can’t be found.

Another situation is where a property owner did order a survey and constructed a fence. They wanted a buffer so they had the fence installed 3 feet into their side of the property line. Someone else purchased the adjoining property and assumed that the fence was on the line. In short, the new neighbor did some landscaping in the buffer, and had to remove it shortly thereafter.

The fence example is classic, but all of these situations happen with any sort of structure. Some of which are a lot more expensive to relocate than a fence. For example, there have been many instances of buildings over the line. Of course, no one would want to tear down their newly constructed building; therefore the cheaper fix is where the building owner purchases the property which the building encroaches. The process can be a pain, to say the least, and can also be quite expensive. In addition to the negotiated price for the land, the property would have to go through the subdivision process. This includes many hours of ordinance research, plan preparation and submissions to the local government. Prices are site specific, but they usually run between $4,000 to $5,000 on the low end.

Did you know that it is possible that you can be forced to remove improvements from your own property? As described in Black’s Law Dictionary, an easement is an interest in land owned by another person, consisting in the right to use the land for a specific purpose. Many current or prospective property owners often do not realize the possibility of their lots containing an easement, and if they do, they don’t quite understand their reach.

Easements are for specific uses such as underground utilities, surface stormwater drainage, cross-country power lines, and can even include restrictions on the airspace above your property. If a utility company holds an easement on your property, you cannot block the access to that easement. Which means no fences, sheds and in certain cases, no planting trees or shrubs. If you do, you will be responsible for removing these improvements at the easement holder’s request.

As you can see, there may be a lot of things happening on a property that is invisible to the naked eye. It is always recommended to check with your local government before you turn your dream property into reality, but you might want to check with a surveyor as well. He or she could possibly save you a lot of money and heartache in the future. If nothing else, you are getting peace of mind.

A property survey can be easy, but they can also be quite challenging. The land surveying industry has changed immensely over the years. The technology has really pushed the advancement of survey equipment into an incredible realm. We can measure lines several hundred feet in length to an accuracy of a few hundredths of a foot. Yet we may have to research documents that have been written over a hundred years ago, and search for ancient monuments in the field.

When it comes to boundary surveys, surveyors have a tendency to be as accurate as possible. As professionals, their determination can be expected to hold true in a court of law. Surveyors generally love to stand behind their work. After all, reputation is everything in this business. However, many of the binding legal descriptions of real property have been written in a time where the survey equipment was not as precise and accurate as it is now. When the worlds collide, discrepancies are found.

Back in the day, although not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, measurements were made by pulling tapes or chains and bearings were read from compasses. In Pennsylvania, a survey is not required for the transfer of real property. Therefore, many legal descriptions are passed down from one deed to the next. Your property’s deed may have a description which is very, very old.

It is the duty of the surveyor to apply the original description of the property to the modern measurements which he or she acquires in the field. This is done by gathering both written and physical evidence, applying sound legal principals and determining a solution. Some situations require more evidence when
monuments are lacking. Others can be solved rather quickly and can be less costly, perhaps under $1,000. Every property is different, and there is no single answer to solve all discrepancies.

You really do get a lot out of a boundary survey. You can learn many things about the property you are considering buying or selling. Boundary laws and determination principles can be complicated, but they were created to protect the best interest of the public. That is why a professional land surveyor has to be registered with the state in which they are practicing. The surveyor takes on a good amount of liability with a property survey, which keeps you out of trouble and your mind at ease.

Douglas M. Allwein, PLS

Douglas M. Allwein, PLS

Kaylor, Allwein and Hartman, Inc.

Douglas M. Allwein, PLS is a professional land surveyor and vice president of Kaylor, Allwein and Hartman, Inc. located in Hershey, PA. He has over 17 years of experience in the fields of land surveying and engineering in the U.S. Army and in the private sector. His specialties include topographic surveys, geodetic control, construction stake out and boundary determination. You can reach him at (717) 533-9077 or dallwein@kah-survey.com. To learn more about Kaylor, Allwein & Hartman, Inc., visit www.kah-survey.com.

Featured in Harrisburg Commercial Real Estate Report – April 2018