Basics of a Land Survey or Boundary Survey

Basics of a Land Survey or Boundary Survey

land surveyLand Surveying dates back to ancient history when the Egyptians surveyed agricultural sites along the Nile River. Surveying is used for multiple project types today.  A land survey or boundary survey is done to establish a specific location of a parcel of land along with its exact acreage.  It is used to ascertain boundaries for defining an area of ownership and tax liability.  It is also used to identify a piece of property by a written legal description or to provide a review of the accuracy of an existing description. This data is of the utmost importance with regard to buying and selling land, and is also used to insure a clean and marketable title.

Different Kinds of Land Survey

There are many different kinds of surveys that can be performed. A boundary survey is typically done for undeveloped land. A lot survey or closing survey is typically done to re-establish the boundary of a previously established parcel of land.  These types of surveys measure the actual physical extent of the property in question. Most surveys progress through the basic procedures regardless of the type being done.

Any pertinent deeds, contracts, maps or other documents that contain a description of the property’s boundaries are located, studied and interpreted. A determination is made of what the actual property description is deemed to be, along with the locations of any physical evidence of the boundaries.

This can be in the form of both natural and man-made monuments or markers that exist in the field. The property is then measured to establish the boundaries, not only using the appropriate existing monuments but with the creation and referencing of new markers where necessary.  Measurements are accomplished using a total station and other surveying tools. A total station measures both vertical and horizontal angles, as used in triangulation networks. After these steps are accomplished, the property description and plat are prepared.

Interpreting the results of a land survey is not as difficult as it may first seem. For instance, a property plat will usually contain a directional orientation which is typically indicated with an arrow pointing north. It will contain the bearing and distance of each boundary line,  the property lines of other properties shown on the plat, and the names of adjacent property owners listed in the areas of their property. Corner monuments, along with the names of any natural monuments (such as “Smith’s Creek”, for example) or a brief description of any unnamed natural monuments (such as the “30-inch oak tree”) are on the plat. There is also a title block containing the property’s location and name of owner, the surveyor’s name and license number, the date the survey was performed, the scale of the plat and any other relevant data.

If you need the services of a land surveyor, ALWAYS be sure that you’re hiring an experienced, licensed, and highly competent professional surveyor. You can find out if the surveyor is licensed by visiting the Board of Licensure’s website. Make sure that your surveyor is licensed for the best land survey services.

Call Auburn Land Surveying today at (334) 826-9540 for more information concerning your land survey needs.

Excessive Rain & Earth Dams Don’t Mix

An article from the Daily Republic in South Dakota talks about an earthen dam that recently failed there due to a 9-inch rainfall event on July 29th of this year. This rainfall event “overwhelmed its capacity” causing the failure of the earthen dam.  There was no report of injury downstream of the dam. This specific dam was built in 1935.  A Department of Game, Fish and Parks Engineer said that “(w)e were satisfied with the condition of the dam” during inspections in 2007 and again in 2008 and that “the breach was caused by an extraordinary natural event and not by any structural weakness in the dam.” (Photograph by Laura Wehde/The Daily Republic)

Earthen dams are almost too numerous to count around the country. In fact, you probably live a lot closer to one than you might think. A large number of dams were built over 70 years ago and, in many cases, the ownership of the dams is different than when they were built. This sometimes makes maintenance and inspection of the dams less regular.

    FEMA estimates “there are over 80,000 dams in the United States”, and that approximately “one third of these pose a ‘high’ or ‘significant’ hazard to life and property if failure occurs.”

In the countries worst dam failure disaster to date, the South Fork dam failure in May of 1889 killed over 2200 people (almost half of which were under 20 years old) in the town of  Johnstown, PA.  A 37-foot high wall of water hit Johnstown, located 9 miles downstream from the dam. Almost the entire city was destroyed, including 1600 homes and 280 businesses.

After the failure of the St. Francis Dam, in March 1928, legislation was enacted in and around California. This, and other later legislation led to life-saving advance warning when the Baldwin Hills dam near Los Angeles, California failed on December 14, 1963. Only 5 individuals were killed because of the advance warning which enabled the evacuation of approximately 16,500 people.

Even though there have been far less loss of lives in the United States from dam failures since the 1970’s, The Association of State Dam Safety Officials reports that…

    there were 132 dam failures and 434 “incidents” between January 2005 and January 2009.

Of course, I should note that the failure of the earthen levees near New Orleans, LA during and after Hurricane Katrina are responsible for killing more than 1000 individuals.

The Ka Loko Reservoir Dam on the Island of Kauai, Hawaii failed in March of 2006 killing 7 people. In November of 2008, the developer, James Pflueger, was indicted for manslaughter and reckless endangerment in relation to the dam failure. His trial is scheduled for this year. The county of Kauai and the State of Hawaii paid out over $9 Million in settlement of lawsuits after the failure. This appears to be the last instance of deaths reported in dam failures in the US.

Causes of Dam Failures

Heavy rains, which cause overtopping, are by far the most common cause of dam failures. Dam spillways and structures are typically not designed for more than a 1-percent chance (aka 100-year) storm event. When a rain event exceeds this, the water begins to travel outside of the control spillway. This leads to erosion of the soil on the dam from the sheer amount of water traveling over it. It is also possible for this overtopping to occur because of debris blockage of the outlet structure or spillways or because of settlement of the dam crest.

Next, foundation defects, including settlement and slope instability, cause about 30% of all dam failures.

Seepage or Piping is the cause of another 20% of U.S. dam failures. Piping is the internal erosion caused by seepage under and through the dam. It often occurs around structures such as pipes through the dam and spillways. Seepage can also be caused by animals burrowing in the dam, by roots of trees growing on the dam, and through cracks in the dam.  All earth dams have seepage resulting from water permeating slowly through the dam and its foundation. But this seepage must be controlled or it will progressively erode soil from the embankment or its foundation, resulting in rapid failure of the dam.

What Should You Do?

Since the failure of a dam causes excessive flooding, one of the best courses of action is to avoid building in a floodprone area, unless you elevate and reinforce your home.  You need to know your risk. Do you live downstream from a dam? Is the dam a high-hazard or significant-hazard potential dam? To find out, contact your state or county emergency management agency and/or visit the National Inventory of Dams. There are around 2,228 dams on the National Inventory in Alabama. Of those, 636 are listed as high or significant hazard potential dams.

If you live downstream from one of these dams, find out who owns the dam and who regulates the dam. This should also be available from the National Inventory of Dams. Next, find out if there is an Emergency Action Plan in place. Again, consult your state or county emergency management agency. (Alabama Emergency Management Agency)

Strangely enough, Alabama is the only state in the United States that has not passed dam safety legislation.

If you want help with investigating a piece of property you are considering purchasing or of one you already purchased, please call Auburn Land Surveying today at(334) 826-9540.

What Is A Land Surveyor?

What is a land Surveyor?

land surveyorA land surveyor is a professional person with the academic qualifications and technical expertise to measure and plot the lengths and directions of boundary lines and the dimensions of any portion of the earth’s surface (including natural and other structures.) That definition is quite a mouthful, but in actuality the field of surveying (geomatics) includes many other facets. For the home-owner the land surveyor is the person who locates the boundary of your property and the location of your home within that boundary to determine if there are any encroachments by your neighbors onto you or vice versa. Common encroachments are fences, driveways, etc.

In addition to the four ladies pictured above, some very famous people in history have practiced surveying. Three surveyors and another guy are depicted on Mt. Rushmore (Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were all three surveyors, Teddy Roosevelt was not.) Others were Daniel Boone, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (Lewis & Clark), Sir George Everest, Charles Mason & Jeremiah Dixon (of the Mason-Dixon Line fame) and author Henry David Thoreau practiced for a time in Concord, Massachusetts.

Why it’s better to hire a licensed land surveyor

These days land surveyors in the United States are regulated and licensed by the various state governments. Here in Alabama, the Alabama State Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors ( was established in 1935 to protect the public by helping “to safeguard life, health, and property, and to promote the public welfare by providing for the licensing and regulation of persons in the practices of engineering and land surveying. This purpose is achieved through the establishment of minimum qualifications for entry into the professions of engineering and land surveying, through the adoption of rules defining and delineating unlawful or unethical conduct, and through swift and effective discipline for those individuals or entities who violate the applicable laws or rules.”

As of the end of 2007, a newly licensed land surveyor is required to have a four year degree in surveying or a closely related field and an additional four to eight years of on-the-job training under a licensed surveyor. A licensed land surveyor is also required to maintain and update his professional knowledge and skills by attending 15 hours of continuing education each year.

In preparation for a typical lot or mortgage survey of your house, a land surveyor may review tax maps, aerial maps, deeds, subdivision plats, zoning ordinances, subdivision regulations and possibly flood maps. For a typical lot survey the subdivision plat is the most important of these because it gives the exact dimensions of your lot and the relative location of your property corners. The land surveyor uses this to locate and/or re-establish your property corners.

In the field the survey crew will find the property corners along with some of your neighbors corners if yours can’t be found, measure the distances and angles between all of the points, locate all improvements on your property, including your house, pool, out-buildings, retaining walls, fences, driveways and sidewalks, etc. Other improvements like sanitary sewer mains, storm drainage ways, overhead power lines and the like are located because these might indicate an easement across the property. The plat should show these, but they don’t in all cases. We’ll talk about easements in a later article.

Once all of the field information is gathered, the crew chief takes the field notes and prepares a preliminary sketch of the work. This is passed along to a draftsperson who prepares the final drawing for your use. The draftsperson will check all of the maps mentioned earlier to make sure that all building setback lines and easements are shown on the drawing. The surveyed distances and directions are compared to the plat distances and directions also. Any discrepancies or encroachments are shown on the drawing. Your attorney uses the drawing to determine if any other legal work is needed during the closing. The mortgage company or bank uses the survey to insure they are loaning you money on the correct property (in case they end up owning it. Yikes)

So now, what do you have for your money. You have a drawing which shows your house on your lot. You should have stakes and/or flagging by all of your property corners. Make sure you know where they are located. The actual corner is marked by an iron pin or pipe of some sort. (The type of monument should be shown on your survey drawing.) You might also want to take a look for them at least once a year to make sure they’re still there. (Even animals mark their territory more often than that.)

For more specific information about what type survey you need, please call Auburn Land Surveying at (334) 826-9540.

J. Keith Maxwell is a Certified Floodplain Manager and has consulted in the Auburn area for over 25 years. He is also a licensed Professional Engineer and Land Surveyor in Auburn, Alabama. 

FEMA’s NFIP – National Flood Insurance Program

According toFEMA the ASFPM, yesterday afternoon the House of Representatives passed a one year extension of the National Flood Insurance Program, extending the current program through September 30, 2011.  (Full details can be found by searching for bill number S. 3814 on The NFIP’s authority had been set to expire on September 30, 2010.The measure now goes to the White House for the President’s signature, which is expected to happen quickly. (ASFPM is “The premier voice in floodplain management practice and policy throughout the nation.”)

The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) mission is to “reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters…” One of the ways that FEMA “protects” us and helps to “reduce the loss of life and property” is through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP enables property owners to purchase insurance protection against losses from flooding.  To establish the insurance rates for each particular home, FEMA identifies flood hazard areas throughout the U.S. by producing Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) and Flood Boundary and Floodway Maps (FBFMs).  These maps identify the Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA)

The re-authorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, if for only a year, allows homeowners throughout the country to purchase flood insurance, and to renew existing flood policies. This had been holding up quite a bit of people, including Insurance Companies (who write the policies for FEMA), realtors, homebuilders, home buyers and sellers, and current policy holders.  Now, there is some stability for at least the next year.

For more information about your flood risk situation, see the flood determination page on this website or CALL AUBURN LAND SURVEYING TODAY at (334) 826-9540 to arrange a free review of your house location related to the flood zone.

Estimate The Costs Of Flood Damage To Your Home


How to estimate the cost of flood damage to your home

The tool below allows you to calculate the costs of flooding. Select a home size that approximates yours and then slide the blue button up or down for the expected depth of flooding.

Call Auburn Land Surveying TODAY for a free flood risk assessment of your home. We will review the flood maps in your area and advise whether we recommend a flood survey. CALL US TODAY at (334) 826-9540. We Give You Peace of Mind.

How To Find Your Home On FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps

FEMAFEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) are issued after a flood risk assessment has been completed or updated for a community.  This study is known as a Flood Insurance Study.  The FIRM shows the Base Flood Elevations (BFEs) and insurance risk zones in addition to floodplain boundaries.  The FIRM may also show a delineation of the regulatory floodway.

Once the “insurance risk zone”  (commonly referred to as the flood zone) is determined, actuarial rates, based on these risk zones, are then applied for newly constructed, substantially approved, and substantially damaged buildings.  FEMA uses these rates to determine the insurance rate you will pay for flood insurance.

To view these maps online, go to FEMA’s Map Service Center and enter your address (hi-lited area shown here) search for your home.  This will allow you to then select the map that covers your area.  The Flood Maps are somewhat cumbersome to use online. I suggest going through the tutorial on the bottom right of the address search page in order to learn how to maneuver around in this GIS map.

If you are located in the City of Auburn, you might also check out the Auburn Interactive GIS Maps for more information. The City also has an interactive FEMA map of the existing and proposed flood maps.

Call Auburn Land Surveying at (334) 826-9540 if you need help with this process or if you discover you are near a flood zone and need an elevation survey completed.  We are here to help you minimize your flooding risk.

"Survey Land Twice, Clear-Cut Once"

land surveyI read an article with the above title that reminded me of surveys I’ve been involved with over the years. In most cases the land owner hired a logging company to clear cut their property and the loggers got over the property line in their zeal to get the “big trees that were out there.” In all the cases, it would have saved the landowner a LOT of money to get the boundary marked by a land surveyor.

    “If you want to be certain and not rely on (assumptions) … it should be properly surveyed,” said Herb Suderman, a real estate attorney.

This is a common occurance in rural areas because of more logging being done there. BUT, this same type problem happens regularly in town by landowners building home additions, driveways, fences, swimming pools, storage buildings over the property line.

Even if you’re sure you’re not over the property line, there are also easement lines and setback lines on most lots that must be avoided.

Please check your property lines and your property survey drawing before undertaking any building or clearing project. As the cliche’ goes, “you can pay me now or pay me later.” And, I’ll add to that cliche’ and say that it always costs you more later.

    “In rural areas because it’s more expensive to survey a large parcel of land, often the surveys are not done,” he said, adding that can cause some “big surprises.”

And, while you probably don’t REALLY need to survey twice, at least once is highly recommended before you “clear-cut” your land.

New ALTA Survey Standards from ALTA/ACSM

New ALTA Survey Standards

ALTA SurveyThe ALTA Survey Standards are being revised and will become effective February 23, 2011. Recently, committees from both the NSPS and ALTA met to review and approve the upcoming standards.  The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), which is a member organization of the American Congress on Surveying & Mapping (ACSM) is a trade organization for the profession of surveying and mapping.  For years ACSM has been the leader among surveying organizations in working with ALTA to develop these nationally recognized surveying standards.  ALTA is the American Land Title Association,  and is the trade association and national voice of the abstract and title insurance industry.

2011 Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/ACSM Land Title Surveys  

Summary of Significant Changes from the 2005 Standards to the 2011 Standards

Annotations on American Congress on Surveying and Mapping – ALTA/ACSM Standards

Changes to ALTA Survey Wording

The ACSM website has a “Summary of Significant Wording Changes” document, which spells out changes to the ALTA survey standards, which have not changed since 2005. Some of the noted changes are:

  • Expands on the “Relative Precision” of the survey
  • Expands on documents to be provided by surveyors
  • Requires more measurements when a water feature is one of the boundaries
  • Suggests that new legal descriptions might not be necessary
  • Requires a lot more information on easements
  • Reinforces that the title opinion should be furnished to the surveyor before the survey begins
  • Expands Table A to include a number of new items which may be requested by clients

While none of these are major changes, surveyors AND those ordering an ALTA survey should be aware of them. One item that I’ve heard a lot of noise about is item #21 on Table A, which, if checked, would required the surveyor to obtain professional liability insurance for the particular survey project. Many surveyors don’t carry professional liability insurance because of the expense of this type of insurance. This will significantly change the price of an ALTA survey if the item is checked.

Surveyors and Clients should discuss the Table A items in detail each time anyway, but this is a big red flag that should be addressed. We’ll see how this plays out in the future and what it will be doing for ALTA Survey.

Winter Snow Melt Could Mean Higher Flood Risk Than Last Eight Years

flood survey | flooding potentialWhile we here in Alabama may not have to worry TOO much about snow melt, this does affect our flooding potential, especially in the northern counties of the state. Folks in the Huntsville area, and many other areas of the state, have seen their FEMA flood maps change recently. Many who were “out of the flood zone” are now shown “in the flood zone.” While, technically, the flood zone hasn’t really changed, the new, and more extensive drainage studies that were done, have identified more areas that are at risk of flooding. Well, this new study could be just in time for you IF you pay attention to your flood risks.
If you live along, or near, a major river in our area, then you should pay attention to this issue as an article on this year’s flood outlook warns.
   It’s kind of hard with this much on the ground to start talking about flooding and planning and thinking flooding, but when you’ve got this much snow and we’re coming into the time of year we’re coming into, if you’re wise you’ll start planning for flooding, said Marion County Emergency Management Director John Hark.
Another factor for river flooding is ground saturation level based on the amount and frequency of spring rains. If you get a couple of days of light to moderate rain, then on the next day you get a “toad strangler” (technical term) then the ground will likely be saturated and cannot soak up any more water. This means that the majority of the storm water will runoff and cause the streams and rivers to swell more than they would normally in an equal size rain event. This is actually called the “antecedent moisture condition.” We normally count on the ground to soak up from thirty to sixty percent of the rainfall it sees. With a high antecedent moisture condition, this could be reduced to as low as ten percent, about equivalent to runoff from paved surfaces.
If you are unsure of the flooding potential or flood risk in your area, please contact a land surveyor before it is too late. A land surveyor can conduct a flood survey or elevation survey which will determine the elevation of your house in relation to the base flood elevation. Armed with this information you will know if you need to purchase flood insurance through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Flood insurance will minimize the risk of flood damage to your home. You might not be able to prevent a flood, but you can sure prevent it from costing you a tremendous amount of money. See this article to estimate the costs of flood damage to your home.
You can use the included instructions to find your home on the new Flood Insurance Rate Maps. If you have trouble, please call us today at Auburn Land Surveying  at (334) 826-9540.  Don’t wait till the river starts to rise.