A survey shows the location of real property on planet earth. It also shows improvements such as buildings, sheds, driveways, party walls, and fences on the property as well as easements, rights of way, and other information in relation to the boundary lines. A survey can help a Buyer understand what improvements the Buyer can and cannot make to the property.
Although a property survey can be prepared at any time, obtaining a survey prior to purchasing property is key. A survey is used to help uncover problems with a property such as potential boundary line disputes. Typically, these consist of fences, sheds, walls, or other improvements on the property you are purchasing that are OVER the property line on a neighboring property. And vice versa, sometimes a neighbor’s improvements can be over the line on the property you are purchasing. Improvements that are over a property line are called “encroachments”. These can lead to disputes with neighbors you have not even met yet… and so should be addressed before closing.
More subtle is the “out of possession” problem. For example, a Buyer is in contract to purchase a home and orders a survey. Upon receipt of the survey Buyer sees that Seller placed their fence is 5 feet from, but within the boundary line of the property. By doing so Seller has given up control of that 5 feet to the neighbor. This calls into question Seller’s ownership of the 5 feet.
More serious – and often more unclear – is the risk of a neighbor claiming adverse possession. For example, if in addition to Seller placing their fence 5 feet from, but within the boundary line, and the neighbor placed his shed there… over the objections of the Seller for a continuous period of time, the neighbor may claim the five feet of land.
Surveys can also help disclose violations of “set back” rules, and construction without a permit.
In all these cases Buyer can demand that Seller resolve the issue before proceeding with closing.
Overall, a survey is important as not only are you receiving title (ownership) to a property, but you are receiving ownership and responsibilities to the improvements on the property as well. Conducting due diligence as to the property, as a whole, allows certainty in your ownership and future plans for the land.