To understand why one needs to know how surveyors work to either create new property lines or find existing ones. Surveyors often differentiate between two broad types of boundary or “property line” surveys. The first type are called “original” surveys and the second are called “retracement” surveys. Clients who call and ask us to survey new dividing lines across property they already own are usually asking us to prepare an original survey. Clients who calls and request to have their existing property lines located are usually asking for a retracement of a previous original survey.
Original surveys create new property lines between property owners. This is not the only legal way to create a new property line, but done correctly original surveys are usually the best way to avoid future disputes over where a property line is located.
Original surveys are usually conducted prior to the sale of a new parcel. At some point during their negotiations, the buyer and seller typically meet and agree on new dividing lines across the seller’s existing property. Once this happens a surveyor is often asked to mark and document the new line. Today this is often done by setting some type of iron rod or pipe along the line, measuring between these points and then recording the measurements on a Certificate of Survey.
A Certificate of Survey is simply a map or drawing of the parcel together with a written description of the survey. The Certificate is taken to an attorney who uses the written description to prepare a deed that the seller will sign and give to the buyer to complete the sale.
In order to be considered an original survey, two things need to happen. The first is the new line needs to be marked or monumented in some way. Drawing lines on a map is not enough. This does not always mean marked by a “surveyor’s stake” or even marked by a professional surveyor at all. Just like you can repair or update your own home, in many cases a property owner can legally subdivide their own property if they know how and the prospective buyer is willing to accept their work. Also roads, fences, retaining walls, creeks, ditches, cliffs, etc can all serve to monument a new property line. All that has to happen is that there must be some way to identify where, on the ground, a line is located.
The second is that both parties on either side of a line need to acknowledge it. There has to be an agreement that “yes, this will be the line between us”. A common way this happens is by constructing a fence. But almost any action (or even lack of action) that shows recognition of a line can be sufficient.
Once property lines are marked and approved, they are by definition without error. What this means is that it doesn’t matter what a surveyor, professional or otherwise, measured or intended to measure that determines the boundary of a parcel. If a survey marker is placed and approved in good faith by the property owners (fraud is a different story), its location governs over any measurements that may be recorded in a deed’s written description or depicted on a map.
The reason for this is simple. The laws governing private property developed long before surveyors had the tools to consistently make accurate measurements. If it had been decided that measurements should trump monuments, then fences, roads and buildings might have to be moved every time a more “accurate” measurement was made. Needless to say this would have resulted in substantial ongoing conflict.
As long as property lines stays well marked, boundary disputes are surprisingly rare. It is not uncommon for property owners to live peacefully next to each other for decades and never dispute their property lines. But over time property lines, like anything else, can fall into disrepair. In addition later property owners sometimes aren’t told by their predecessor where property lines are located. Neighbors begin to become confused about their property lines and people start arguing. At this point it becomes necessary to call in a surveyor to “retrace” the property lines.
When we conduct an original survey we try to leave behind a trail of evidence for a later surveyor to follow. We attempt to monument, measure and document our lines in such a way that even if a disaster destroys everything on the property, a future surveyor could “retrace” our work and again identify the boundary lines.
If an original surveyor left a well defined trail, retracing their work can be relatively quick, easy and cheap. In the case of original surveys conducted in the past 30 or 40 years, this is often the case. Surveyors during this time period often set durable, typically easy to find, iron monuments to mark a line, used high accuracy tools to measure them and prepared detailed Certificates of Survey to document their work.
Needless to say we rarely receive calls to retrace these surveys. In many cases the parcels we are asked to survey were often created 100+ years ago. In southeast Minnesota the survey markers used then were often either biodegradable wood stakes or difficult to identify field stones (iron monuments at the time were an expensive, east coast import). Measurements made then were more accurate than many of these surveyors are given credit for, but naturally were not up to todays standards.
But the biggest problem is often limited documentation. In many cases the only documentation that was created was the written property description that appears on a deed. If a map or drawing was created, they were often simple and typically omitted key measurements.
Despite these and other challenges, we are often surprisingly successful in pulling together fragments of evidence to figure out where property lines should be located. Stone monuments can often still be found and wood stakes have many times since been replaced with iron monuments. Fence lines and roads have been upgraded, but often still remain in place. Also there can be a surprising amount of helpful documentation available if you know where to look and how to read it. At times the work can be quite rewarding.
But no matter how successful we might be, it is important to recognize that there are still some limitations to any retracement survey. Unlike an original surveys, retracement work can never be assumed to be error free.
When we retrace someone elses trail, we try to recover and restore their lines before the evidence completely disappears. Unfortunately it is usually impossible to ever completely recover all the available evidence an original surveyor left behind. Any retracement survey we conduct can only ever be a professional opinion based on the evidence available at that time. If new evidence becomes available, the best we can do is revise our opinion to reflect it.
This is similar to the process you might experience when visiting your doctor. Your doctor’s diagnosis of what ails you is a professional opinion based on the evidence available during your visit. In most cases this is sufficient and your illness is successfully treated. But occasionally new evidence comes to light later and a diagnosis must be revised and your treatment changed.
I’m pointing this out because many times clients call us under the false belief that we can tell their neighbor where the property line should be located. We can’t. All we can do is try to pull together a coherent story of what was agreed to in the past. We attempt to outline and document for both parties the available evidence and show them where on the ground we think the property line should be located.
In most cases that evidence is convincing and it typically roughly confirms what the property owners suspected all along. Even if new evidence becomes available later, it often just verifies our original analysis. The property owners recognize the remarked lines and move on.
But in a few cases the available evidence isn’t quite so definitive. The best we can do is narrow things down to a general area. Also there are some parcels that were never surveyed. The original buyers and sellers never marked a line on the ground and just came to an agreement on paper. There is no line to retrace.
In these cases the only practical solution is for our client and their neighbor to agree to a new line. A new original survey needs to be prepared and acknowledged, usually through a deed exchange.
Please note that for clarity our explanation here is a bit simplistic. Like most technical subjects, thing are more complicated in practice. Textbooks have been written on this topic and even among professionals certain aspects of it are still being debated. However hopefully we have provided enough of a foundation to help people begin a conversation with a surveyor if they ever need surveying services.