While most land purchasers almost instinctively think of acquiring title insurance as part of closing on the purchase of land, most purchasers do not instinctively think of getting a survey. But without a survey, the purchaser does not know for certain the boundaries of his land purchase. The legal description on a deed often does not match what is on the ground.
Many purchasers will rely on the lot number matching the lot in a platted residential subdivision. While the plat might be professionally prepared, it may not be accurate. More likely, the plat will be accurate but the physical lots will not match the plat. We once litigated a property line dispute in a neighborhood that was positioned two feet to the west of what was described on the plat. The developer had placed boundary line stakes in the ground in the wrong places. He shifted the entire neighborhood to the west by two feet. When one neighbor chopped down trees that he mistakenly thought were on his property, a survey revealed the mistake. Lawsuits quickly followed.
We resolved that case by prosecuting a claim for adverse possession, gaining for the client a strip of land two feet wide and more than two hundred feet long. While our client was pleased with the result, we think that such disputes should be avoided completely by acquiring a survey before land is purchased. For new lots in new developments, a staked survey (stakes in the ground making property lines and corners) is most appropriate. Generally, there are not enough physical markers, such as fences, trees, etc. to make a survey location report (a map of the property lines and physical makers) as helpful as a staked survey of a new lot in a new subdivision. For large properties, a staked survey can be costly, but should be considered, given the unique circumstances of the property and the intended uses.
Remember that title insurance demonstrates the legal holder of the property and a description of the property. The survey will compare and contrast the legal description of the property given to you by the seller (usually in a deed) and the actual property lines as located on the ground. The lines in the written description and those laid on the ground should be the same.
If you buy land without the benefit of a survey, you will know (1) whether your seller actually owned the property before you purchased it and (2) the description of land as provided by the seller. What you do not know is whether you bought the same physical piece of land existing on the ground.
If you find yourself in a dispute with a neighbor, seek legal counsel immediately. Property line disputes can become very emotional, and we have seen tensions escalate into physical confrontations. That is no way to resolve a property line dispute. One neighbor is right, and the other is wrong. The law provides more than one way to resolve property line disputes, including at least one process that does not include the filing of a lawsuit. A good real estate attorney will help you navigate through the legal minefield to reach a sensible, fair and efficient result. Better yet, get a survey before you acquire real property and determine for certain whether the legal description on your deed matches what you see on the ground.