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Surveying 101

 
If you’ve landed here, you probably need a survey. You’re in the right place. What this post attempts to do is outline the general types of surveys available and provide a few examples of what types of surveys work for what types of problems (e.g. I want to install a fence, I want to build a house, I want to subdivide my land).
 
While I will outline some of these cases, it’s important to note that every situation is different and these may require a review of conditions by a professional land surveyor or legal counsel. This article uses broad brush strokes and is intended as a “Cliffs Notes” guide for a lay audience. This is written primarily for Rhode Island but most New England states have some similarities...and some differences (for example, Massachusetts has a Torrens title registration system as opposed to a Metes and bounds system).
 
Let’s start with the basic types of surveys. I will refer to our in-house item numbers (1.1, 1.2, etc.), generally. The terms we use come from RI state standards which can be found here: http://www.bdp.state.ri.us/documents/surveyors/2015ProfessionalLandSurveyorRulesRegulations.pdf

Metes and Bounds Survey aka property line survey or “Class 1” Survey

These are generally referred to as a Limited Content Boundary Survey (1.1) or a Comprehensive Boundary Survey (1.2).
 
When we say “survey”, this is usually what we mean. It’s the process of gathering field and land evidence, running lines and coming up with a “solution” or reconciliation of the property lines. This is typically done using AutoCAD, a computer-aided design and drafting software application. This information is presented in a couple of ways:
 
Survey Plan: Exactly what it sounds like - a plan showing the survey solution, records, references, roads, buildings, etc. We will show any monuments (metal pins, pipes, bounds, drill holes, etc.) recovered / found during the survey.
 
Setting Monuments: This is where we come back out to your site (after the initial survey) and set new monuments on the property line. We generally use Limited Content, as opposed to Comprehensive. The biggest difference is a Comprehensive requires 70% of all corners be set.
 

 
Ultimately, these surveys are typically done to a “Class 1” standard; this is the accurate process required for property lines. If you want to set a new fence along a property limit, ask for a dimensional zoning variance or subdivide a parcel, then this is where you would start. Basically, what this entails is:
 
- Land evidence research which goes back to the ‘creation’ of a property from a subdivision, as well as land evidence research for abutting parcels to uncover easements, restrictions, etc.
 
Often, if you have title information from an attorney (from a closing for example), it can be helpful and save costs. Many title policies go back 35 years (which is often enough to statutorily cover a parcel) but that’s a blip in terms of land evidence research for many parcels, so the advantage is limited.
  
- Field surveying to locate property monuments as well as physical features (fences, walls, buildings, driveways, etc.) that are an indication of occupation. Generally, if less than 2-3 monuments are found on site or less than 4-6 are located on the “Subdivision Block“, then additional fieldwork is needed.
 
- Reconciliation is referred to as "putting the puzzle pieces together". More formally, this is reproducing record plans and applying rules of evidence / hierarchies of monuments in an attempt to come up with a property line solution; not only for your property but for surrounding parcels in the particular subdivision or area.
 
As noted, a comprehensive boundary requires a final step which is to return to the site and ensure that 70% of the monuments (or 3 out of 4 lot corners, for a standard rectangular lot) are in place. If these are not in place, then we will set a new survey monument. Generally, we break this up as a sub-item (1.3) field or construction staking. We find it’s fairer in terms of pricing. If you already had monuments installed to this standard, then there is no additional charge. If you require 10 new monuments, then you pay for 10 new monuments. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a crapshoot and can artificially create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’; as you don’t know how many monuments exist before you start the survey.
 
A limited content survey generally only requires that two monuments exist or are referred to (the minimum number that would allow a future surveyor to reproduce this). It’s then completely okay to set as many (or as few) monuments as the homeowner needs. In rare cases (if there are no monuments nearby), additional charges may be required to set monuments to conform to minimum standards. If a survey can’t be reproduced by another surveyor in the future, then it’s worthless!
 
Class 4 Survey: We don’t even have a standard item for this; that’s how rare of a bird it is. This is basically a survey by plan / records. It’s an extremely approximate survey and really only relevant for very large parcels (10+ acres).
 
1.3 Construction Staking (Setting Monuments) aka Boundary Staking Survey
Generally, we charge hourly rates for setting monuments, as well as charging for the monument itself. We aim to charge folks for what the work is worth and this is the most even-handed way to do it. You literally get what you pay for. If a monument is in the middle of the woods, then it’s going to take a lot longer to set than if it’s in a front lawn. By the same token, the cost of a rebar monument is minimal but a granite bound is expensive. You can choose what kind of monument you want (unless obstructions occur) and the prices are listed on our contract.
 
We’re a fan of FENO monuments (https://www.berntsen.com/Surveying/Survey-Monuments/FENO-Survey-Monument); they seem to be a happy medium for most residential jobs. We also keep survey caps and bound caps in stock.
 
 
Construction Staking is what you would need if you were building a house close to a setback line (a distance from a curb, property line, or structure within which building is prohibited). On commercial projects, every major element is staked out in the field by a surveyor. Residential projects tend to have tighter budgets and tighter scopes but features in critical locations or near regulatory limits need to be set by a registered surveyor.
 
- Plan Recording is generally the final step. This is not explicitly required by standard, but is strongly recommended. Filing a survey in land evidence gives it some heritage and will ensure that it is available to future owners and surveyors as it becomes part of the land evidence chain. Typically, a mylar print (thick, translucent, almost plastic material that is more durable than paper) will be created and brought to the Municipal Clerk. This can be done by the homeowner or attorney; applicable fees can usually be found on the Town Hall website. This usually runs about $150, plus around $85 for the Mylar (2018 pricing).
  
If a tree falls in the woods, no one hears the sounds. If a survey plan stays in your file drawer for 20 years but no one knows it’s there when a property is sold, then it’s not doing much good. The cost of filing is marginal and it makes all the difference.
 
  • ALTA Survey aka American Land Title Association Survey.
This is a detailed survey performed by a registered licensed surveyor, prepared in accordance with the standards specified by ALTA. It incorporates elements of the boundary survey, mortgage survey and topographic survey. While these are typically not done for residential properties, an ALTA survey provides an additional set of standards for land surveys. These are usually done for high value or commercial transactions and require a Title Search to be completed to requisite standards by an Attorney / Title Company. The title information in and of itself is valuable, as it’s backed typically by title insurance.
 
Generally, the Title Attorney and / or Lender will require additional stipulations based on a Standard ALTA checklist. We need to know which of these items are required to provide accurate pricing.  
While this type of survey won’t be needed for typical homeowners, it is important to know that it’s an existing option. More information can be found here:
 
  • Topographic Surveys aka Class 3 Surveys (T-1 + T-2  standards)
The technical term for this is a Data Accumulation Survey (NEI item 1.5) and these are occasionally referred to as functional surveys. These typically are used to locate physical features like buildings, driveways, patios, surface treatments, utility structures and topography (site grades). These are generally broken up into two tiers of accuracy - the higher being T-1, the lower being T-2 and refer to the technical requirement of tolerance between contour intervals (the vertical distance or the difference in the elevation between two contour lines on a topographical map). Generally, either can be appropriate for single family residential sites but projects like Bridges, Highways or large / complex commercial developments need the higher category.
 
We typically use a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) / drone camera for all of our Topographic Surveys as they yield an amazing amount of data compared to traditional methods. Additionally, we’re able to compile other data sources into one model (from traditional survey data or GIS / LiDAR sources which are optical remote-sensing techniques that use laser light to densely sample the surface of the earth, producing highly accurate x,y,z measurements). 
 
Any type of drainage design, OWTS design, building design or site plan will need a topographical survey. It’s the most ‘basic’ type of survey but ensures that all necessary items are efficiently and accurately located. A missed feature could yield a major surprise to a construction budget!
 
The additional items we typically add to these surveys are:
 
1.5A: Subsurface Utility:  In this case, we would “pop” or open utility structures (drainage or sanitary manholes) to inspect and measure to the pipe invert (bottom), as well as determine sizes and condition. We also perform research at utility departments for any “as built” plans on file that will help the effort. Ultimately, we aim to display this information on our topographical survey plans.
 
1.5B Wetland Flags: This will hopefully be a relic soon but for the moment, if a biologist goes and sets a wetland flag in the field (i.e. delineates a wetland), then he or she never has to locate or survey that flag. We have to have our field surveyors go out, find the flag and locate it with survey equipment. It’s definitely laborious, as wetlands are wooded typically.
 
More recently, some of our wetland crews are being trained on the use of RTK (Real-time kinematic positioning - a satellite navigation technique used to enhance the precision of position data derived from satellite-based positioning systems such as GPS) so we can ‘skip’ a step. It’s not a one size fits all solution because some sites don’t get GPS coverage but we’re moving in the right direction.
 
 
1.5C Tree Location Survey: This is typically reserved for large residences, commercial sites or public parcels (like a Newport Mansion or University Campus) where specimen trees exist and need to be protected for construction or indexes. In those cases, our surveyors will locate the tree, its diameter, type (common name) and drip line (limit of leaves/branches) and then create a table to show this information. 
 
1.5D UAV Survey: Survey by Drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.
We’ve covered this in our Droning On blog post (link below). This is becoming the standard for all topographic surveys, but often it’s specifically needed or called for on contracts. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/droning-neal-hingorany-pls/
 
Odds and Ends:
 
1.6 Elevation Certificates:  These are used for sites in flood zones to obtain insurance rate information. These are covered in our blog post Building in Flood Zones – a Client Primer.  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/building-flood-zones-client-primer-neal-h...
 
1.4: Feature Location Survey: These are used to locate or depict a specific feature on a site; perhaps a particular easement, building or elements in relation to one another. It’s rarely used but it can have its place in some circumstances.
 
 
Q/A:
 
Can you survey just one line of my property?
 
Not really… but let’s be a bit more precise. If you have a small to midsize property (~up to 10 acres +/-), then we need to survey not just your whole property but often your neighbors' as well.  We need to be able to see how your lot was created out of the previous subdivision to make sure that the “puzzle pieces” fit. Now, we can set monuments on one line of your property, that’s no problem.
 
For very large parcels, it’s possible (in RI, not MA) to do a mix of survey classes. We can do a class 1 survey in the area of concern (where you’re building a house or setting a fence) and do a class 4 survey (which is a survey by plan / record only) for the remainder. This approach is a rare bird and occasionally won't work if the plans and records are deficient. Unfortunately, you should always be prepared to bear the cost of a full class 1 survey for the property.
 
How long is this going to take?
 
This is a loaded question. It often depends on how busy things are and how much you’re willing to pay! Typically, we start new jobs within 2-4 weeks. It may take 2 weeks to complete a simple job or 4+ weeks if we find issues.
 
We do offer rush rates if you have a fixed deadline that’s pending. This usually increases the cost by 1.5x to 2x, depending on the timeframe and complexity.  
Larger projects (3-4+ acres) generally take longer.
 
How much is this going to cost?
 
We offer free custom proposals - that is the best answer. Call, email, stop in, fill out our web form and we will be happy to give you a proposal in a few days usually. For a typical ¼ to 1 acre property, it’s normally about $1,500 to $2,500 to do a survey (class 1) and plan. Setting new monuments is variable. It’s usually about $750 to $1,500 for a typical trip (if we have to come back), on top of the base cost. That would cover up to maybe 4 to 6 monuments (not including any brush clearing).
 
I have an old survey plan, will this reduce the cost?
 
It certainly can if it’s well done, stamped and recorded. Keep in mind, part of our job is uncovering any record land evidence available; that’s where 99% of our records come from and this allows us to verify that the evidence is legitimate. We will certainly consider any other information you have. It’s very important that you tell us any reference information you have about the property. Our field surveyors are good but they are human and can miss things. If you’re aware of survey monuments (or where some used to be), old fence lines, evidence of walls, utility lines, etc., then please let us know! Your testimony is a key part of the process.
 
What does this note mean?
 
Note: Property disputes, litigation, arbitration or similar issues are not included within this proposal. Additionally, deed or property errors caused by past recording errors, encroachments, non-conforming structures, adverse possession, or takings may require additional services to resolve outside the scope of this proposal…
 
Basically, it means that some land surveys cannot be solved under the strict cost or cost estimate provided, due to technical issues.  
 
A Digression:
In the “old” days, Surveyors (and Engineers), as a rule, would not provide fixed price contracts to clients. The rationale was that the field was too complex and unwieldy, so much so that it was difficult to predict the exact amount of effort required. Additionally, it was feared that firms would attempt to undercut each other, leading to potentially inferior products. Eventually, there were lawsuits filed that effectively ended the requirement of this practice.
 
 
Most surveys go fairly smoothly - monuments are found, there are no encroachments, land evidence is solid, etc. We do the work, we send a bill and we all move on.  In some odd cases (maybe 1 in 200 projects, it’s fairly rare), we find an issue. This could be title related (e.g. the record plans are inaccurate or missing, there is a title issue or something similar). Basically, what we’re saying is that it's going to cost more time and money to resolve these issues and it necessitates hiring an attorney. Generally, we would say, don’t get “hung up” on the issue, as it’s probably not going to happen, but do be aware of it just in case it does.
 
I want to set a fence, wall, row of trees, etc. on or near my property line.
 
Then yes, it’s a great idea to have a class 1 – Metes and Bounds Survey / either a Limited Content Boundary Survey (if setting one line, for example) or a Comprehensive Boundary Survey (NEI 1.1 or 1.2).  Many fence companies are wise to this. They generally will not set a fence on a property line without a survey.
 
A Digression:
Many states (New Jersey comes to mind), require that a survey be performed any time land is bought or sold. This has come up legislatively in RI, but the political will is just not there yet. We would urge buyers to consider a survey as part of any land purchase transaction. A survey can help protect against many issues (adverse possession, prescriptive easements, etc., which can cost $15,000 - $20,000+ to litigate). There are many factors at play here: if you’re the last lot to be developed in a subdivision, then I would (anecdotally) put the odds of an encroachment at >50% and homes abutting open space, state / federal land or coastlines can have similar problems. Title issues, houses on or near old roadways and those next to major utility corridors can be subject to the same. This is worth its own blog post, but the long and the short of it is get a survey when you buy land!
 
Again, a “survey” and “point staking” is a 4 to 5 step process: Land evidence research, site survey (monument recovery) and reconciliation* (at the office, e.g. putting all the data together and determining an ideal solution) all combine to form a complete picture of the land in question.
 
Then we can either set monuments in the field at corners, and / or prepare a survey plan (for recording).
 
We generally recommend that the survey be completed first before you schedule the fence company appointment. Additionally, if land clearing is needed, then that process needs to be coordinated with NEI and the landscape company to make sure that the clearing remains on your land.
 
We always recommend filing a survey plan in land evidence. If you are not in need of this service, then an informal “post staking SK (sketch)” will be emailed to you upon completion.
 
Finally, talk to your neighbor. Even though you might be “right” in having a technical survey done, there are many legal issues (outside the scope of this blog) concerning encroachments, adverse possession, etc. that can sort of ‘trump’ a survey in odd cases. Beyond that, informing your neighbor that you’re getting a survey done is just the “neighborly” thing to do. It's a good practice to minimize these issues, or at the very least, settle things in an amicable way. Having a survey done first allows neighbors to "see" where a fence, wall, etc. will be placed, prior to installation.
Informing your neighbor might just save you money too. Surveying an adjacent parcel is included in a typical survey, so it could present an opportunity to save almost half the survey cost if you and your neighbor requisition surveys together. 
 
* Prior to setting any points in the field, we will email you a pre-staking SK to ensure that the corners and point you need are indeed the ones we will be setting.
 
I want to build a new house on raw land, put an addition on an existing building or demo and rebuild a house.
 
Keep in mind, this blog only covers the survey elements. See our other blog posts, or more importantly, our official cost proposal for the permit path.
 
You will still need to have a limited content or comprehensive boundary survey (NEI 1.1 + 1.2) and a Data Accumulation Survey (1.5), to locate topography, physical features, the building and associated infrastructure. Ultimately, you will need to have a proposed site plan done. This is a fine line; residential site plans can generally be done by surveyors. More significant developments require an engineer (although a survey is still the first step).
 

 
Additionally, you will most likely need a utility survey (1.5C), Wetlands Flagging Location (if you’re near wetlands or the coast (1.5A)) and have a UAV Survey done (1.5D). The UAV survey allows us to photo, model and ‘view’ the entire site accurately in 3-D / three dimensions. It’s a game-changing approach, please ask us for a sample and see our blog post: http://nei-cds.com/content/droning
 
We require these to be done for all development projects. It’s generally affordable and actually saves time and money.
 
You may also be required to get an elevation certificate (1.6) if you’re renovating a house in a flood zone.
 
The key factor is proper coordination. Even a relatively simple site may require multiple consultants (including engineers, surveyors, architects, landscape architects, etc.).  Someone needs to be put in charge so they can handle the delegation of all these elements. This could be you, a contractor, NEI, an architect, etc. Team or shared approaches are fine as well.
 
You need to make sure you consider (for residential buildings):
  • Zoning Impacts. For even mildly complicated sites, a meeting or call with the administrative officer is a must.
  • Environmental Impacts. You have to call or meet with the Department of Environmental Management, Coastal Resources Management Council, etc. DEM deals with “Freshwater Wetlands” (think inland) and CRMC handles “coastal” areas. There are maps available that show the demarcation.
  • Septic systems. Talk with DEM or look at Municipal Sewer Connection permits.
  • RIDOT (RI Department of Transportation): If you’re on or near a state road.
  • Architectural design and elements, building height (Code and Style)
  • Soils, water table, basements
  • Structural Design
  • Town impacts, DPW, Planning, etc. 
  • Utilities, National Grid, water department, gas, propane, electric, ETC and others.
  • Occasionally, quasi municipal organizations like Quonset Point, KCWA, NBC, and others.
NEI can handle most of these elements or bring in a relevant subcontractor if needed.  The more detailed help you need, the higher the cost, typically. We want to find the right fit for your needs and budget, while still making sure that minimum standards are met (or exceeded).
 
Once the project is completed, you may require an as-built plan. It’s generally recommended that these be performed so you can be sure that what you’ve built conforms.
 
I want to subdivide my property.
 
Subdivisions can be very simple - like an Administrative Subdivision, for example. These require metes and bounds surveys (1.2 +/- 1.2), Functional Surveys (Data Accumulation Surveys 1.5), a meeting with interested parties (the abutters, laying out the new linework both digitally and on site) and typically a meeting with the Town Planner. Provided there are no zoning issues, this can be done in 4-8 weeks (sometimes less). 
 
Major Subdivisions (with new roadways) can be some of the more complex design efforts. These require teams of consultants (which NEI maintains in-house and with subcontractors) including Surveyors, Engineers, Environmental Scientists (Wetland Biologists, Environmental Remediation firms and Soil Evaluators), Architects, Landscape Architects, a qualified General Contractor, Site Development firms, Traffic Experts, Lighting designs and more.
 
These can sometimes go quickly (6 months may be the floor for a simple road, provided funds are available and advice of consultants and regulators is followed) or take multiple years, for contentious or very large designs. A good swimmer going downstream usually beats a strong swimmer going upstream. The strong swimmer may get there eventually but it will take longer and more energy is expended.
 
Hopefully, if you’re reading this and planning a large development, this information is basic to you. If not, you have some research to do or you need a consultant to assist you with the process. In these cases, NEI will prepare detailed cost proposals, conceptual designs, feasibility and budget analysis prior to the project kickoff so that if there are major issues with the site or design concept, they can be determined as inexpensively and quickly as possible.
 
Look into a list of typical subdivision types (in descending order of complexity, i.e. least complex listed first, most complex listed last). Adding a new road typically adds substantial complexity (e.g. a 4 lot minor subdivision with a road is typically more complex than a 5 lot major subdivision without a new subdivision road).
 
1.8 Concept subdivision
 
This is the recommended first step for any subdivision, but it is not a type of subdivision. A concept plan is a low cost plan to prepare a conceptual plan for review with municipal officials, state agencies, investors or similar entities.
 
Concept designs are an informal process; deliverables are roughly drawn plans or sketches intended to conservatively determine potential subdivision yields. The process is designed to determine if a property is viable for a specific purpose and to probe for weak points or limiting factors that may inhibit development or make development practically infeasible. Designs will be undertaken by right configuration (e.g. conforming to ordinance and planning regulations). Potential variance conditions will be noted but may not be explored. Concept designs are not suitable for permitting or construction and a significant amount of work will be required to prepare the design set for planning, permitting or construction.
 
1.9A Administrative Subdivision or Merger
 
An administrative subdivision is the modification of existing lot lines of record, provided that no variances are created by the modification. An administrative merger is the merger of multiple lots of record into a single lot of record. These are generally the simpler forms of subdivision.
Prerequisites: Metes and bounds survey.
 

 
1.9B Minor Subdivision
 
A minor subdivision is generally the creation of an additional 1 to 5 lots of record. This may or may not involve the creation of a road.
 
They're usually done in stages, being:
  • Conceptual
  • Master
  • Preliminary
  • Final
For very small minor subdivisions without a new road, the conceptual stage can often be omitted and the preliminary and final stages combined.
 
Prerequisites: Metes and bounds survey, topographic and utility survey, Soil evaluations (if OWTS or drainage required), Conceptual Subdivision (recommended) and Drainage Design (for parcels).
 
1.9C Major Subdivision
A major subdivision is generally any division of land that results in the creation of five or more parcels, five or more condominiums, or a community apartment project containing five or more parcels, or the conversion of a dwelling to a stock cooperative containing five or more dwelling units.
 
A major subdivision generally requires several steps:
  • Review Stages
  • Pre-Application
  • Master
  • Preliminary 
  • Final
Occasionally, the preliminary and final stages can be combined.
 
1.9D Subdivision or Major Land Development Road Design
 
Design of a proposed roadway associated with a minor/major subdivision, or Major Land Development.
Prerequisites: Metes and bounds survey, topographic and utility survey, Soil evaluations, Conceptual Subdivision (recommended), Drainage design and State Permitting.
 
Land Surveying is a technical practice and it is required that all Property Line surveys in the State of RI (and other NE states) be performed by a Professional Land Surveyor (you can search for licenses here: https://elicensing.ri.gov/Lookup/LicenseLookup.aspx). 
 
There are often exceptions to many general rules; this blog is for informative purposes only, for prospective survey clients. Any and all technical survey issues should be handled directly by a PLS.
 
Have more questions?  Email us. We will be happy to respond.
 
Neal Hingorany