We Listen.

Do I Really Need a Survey?

Time and again, we are engaged to assist clients in solving real estate problems that could have been discovered – and perhaps avoided — if they had surveyed the property before they bought:

  • Like the homeowner who discovered a good part of his yard and part of his house were actually outside his lot and within a “paper street” with no known owner.
  • Or the buyer who learns that that the hedge and fence that the seller said was the boundary is not, and that the actual boundary is some 30 feet closer to the house, making construction of his addition more difficult or impossible.
  • Or the driveway that is really on the neighbor’s property.
  • Or the garage constructed by the prior owner violates zoning setback restrictions (will I have to tear it down?).
  • Or, my personal favorite: the homeowners who discover that the property described in their deed is actually next door to the house they thought they bought and were in factliving in -– a state of affairs that came to light when “their” home was posted with a foreclosure notice (quite a surprise because they had been paying their mortgage). This was a problem caused by the accidental switching the property descriptions for the adjacent properties prior deeds. It was resolved successfully, but not without a court-ordered reformation of the deeds and mortgages involved.

And the list goes on and on.

Most people would be very surprised how often title disputes and boundary issues arise, and how often they arise in the middle of towns, or in established subdivisions. Claims of “adverse possession” and boundary wars are not by any means confined to the country where boundaries often seem less defined.

And most clients are quite surprised to learn that more often than not, matters such as those described above are NOT covered by title insurance.

More often than not, property owners’ understanding of their precise boundaries and other features of their title is murky at best. Often, owners inherit misunderstandings about their own boundaries, in some cases that have lasted for many years.

In some cases of course encroachments, hedges, fence lines and the like can ultimately create the basis for claiming title by adverse possession (or, as it is sometimes called, “squatter’s rights”), but that entails litigating with one’s neighbor.

Most sophisticated real estate investors and developers obtain a survey as part of normal pre-settlement due diligence (and, increasingly most commercial lenders are requiring a survey). And, those that don’t should.

But what about the purchaser of an existing home or a lot on which to build a home later? In Pennsylvania, it remains the exception rather than the rule that a purchaser of a home or even a lot on which the buyer hopes to construct a home obtains a thorough and current survey. Why? Well, in some cases, there is concern over cost. It is true that a survey is likely to be the single largest pre-settlement “due diligence” expense, and many buyers prefer to allocate their due diligence budget to inspection of the heater and roof and other key building systems.

Also, time is a factor. Everyone in a real estate transaction seems to be in a hurry. And, while most inspections can be done in a couple of weeks, the survey is a longer lead time item.

But most of the time buyers do not get a survey out of sheer ignorance of its importance.

A well prepared survey (done in conjunction with a good title search) will disclose:

  • Errors in the property description, or conflicts with the description of adjoining properties
  • The location of easements and rights of way that are in the public record
  • Setback limitations from property lines and other features, under zoning and private restrictions
  • Encroachments (the neighbor’s tool shed built over the boundary line)
  • Location of utility lines, wells, septic systems, and other features.

A minor encroachment or boundary closure error is not altogether unusual and is often not cause for alarm. But a significant boundary discrepancy – a fence that the neighbors clearly treated as a boundary but which is significantly off the actual boundary, could be a signal to a significant boundary dispute with a new neighbor.

Perhaps most importantly, it can alert the buyer to obstacles they may confront when they go to build that addition or pool they have in mind, or the home they dream of building on that lot.

The well informed and well advised buyer will not only conduct physical inspections of the buildings, but will review the title search carefully (for easements and restrictions) and should in most cases at least consider a survey.

If you are buying a property with a new home, addition, pool or tennis court in mind, would you buy the property if you cannot actually build?

So, is a survey always required? In my view, it is always prudent to consider a survey in every purchase but is absolutely essential when buying a lot for a new home or when buying a home on which significant improvements are planned (and without which you would not buy, or not buy for that price).

When buying a home in a newer subdivision, may times a recent survey and subdivision plan will be available for inspection, and increasingly municipalities require that lot corners be marked with pins or other monuments. Those circumstances can reduce risks and sometimes provide enough “comfort” to justify not getting a new survey.

At the very least, the decision to get (or not get) a survey should be made after an informed discussion with a competent professional, that takes into account available information from other sources that bear on the decision and risk parameters.

Yes, the survey maybe the most costly single item of due diligence you do. However, it is not nearly as costly as the litigation that can result from title and boundary disputes, the bad feelings with neighbors that title disputes invariably cause, or the inability to build the dream home, the addition or the pool that you hoped for in the first place.

William J. Burke, III
April 21, 2016

Share on Social Media
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn
  • Email

Sophisticated, Responsive and Focused.

  • “At Unruh Turner Burke & Frees, the client’s objective is never lost in the details and as a result, even complex deals get done quickly and efficiently..."

    Read More...

  • “Unruh Turner Burke & Frees has been a tremendous resource to me and my team throughout the past 17+ years. This highly-talented group delivers the...”

    Read More...

  • “Unruh Turner Burke & Frees has been a trusted source of advice and counsel on all levels of governmental law and regulation, from zoning and land use...”

    Read More...

  • "Our Trust Department has utilized Unruh Turner Burke & Frees’ expertise for several years to assist our clients with their overall estate plans. They..."

    Read More...

  • “Over the last 25 years Unruh Turner Burke & Frees has represented our residential building and development enterprise in many capacities including real..."

    Read More...

  • "Based on my long-term relationship with Unruh Turner Burke & Frees, I can wholeheartedly recommend its services to any business owner who wishes to work with...”

    Read More...

  • “We recently hired Unruh Turner Burke & Frees to handle a conditional use application for our Chestnut Street Lofts apartment project in downtown West Chester..."

    Read More...

  • “I have been working with Unruh Turner Burke & Frees for many years. They have provided legal counsel in the areas of Estate Planning, Land Use, Litigation and...”

    Read More...

  • “I have relied on the firm's legal advice to make critical decisions on handling family wealth and making appropriate decisions for my family's future.”

    Read More...

  • “… This highly-talented group delivers the highest quality legal work and brings real-world experience in a very cost-effective manner…”

    Read More...

  • "If there is an issue facing a municipality, Unruh Turner Burke & Frees is the source for sound guidance and direction.”

    Read More...

  • “…They have provided legal counsel in the areas of Estate Planning, Land Use, Litigation and Real Estate. In every one of those areas I have been blessed with great ...”

    Read More...

  • "Whether we are competing in a strong market or working through a declining market, it has always been reassuring to know that Unruh Turner Burke & Frees has both..."

    Read More...

meet our elite team
West Chester, PA
17 West Gay Street
P.O. BOX 515
West Chester, PA 19380
(610) 692-1371
Phoenixville, PA
120 Gay Street
P.O. Box 289
Phoenixville, PA 19460
(610) 933-8069
Paoli, PA
43 Leopard Road, Building II
Suite 103
Paoli, PA 19301
(610) 240-0750