Land Surveys That Meet ALTA Requirements

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Surveys are an important part of many real estate transactions, especially expensive commercial real estate transactions. In this lesson, you'll learn about surveys, including surveys that meet ALTA requirements, and when they are used.

Surveys - An Overview

Ryan is a real estate agent who specializes in multimillion-dollar properties that will be developed for commercial or industrial purposes, such as office buildings, shopping centers, manufacturing plants and factories. Ryan has a client, WeDevelopBig Inc., that wants to purchase a 30-acre piece of land on the outskirts of town and develop it into mixed-use development with condos, shopping and office space. The land will costs millions and the development will cost tens of millions of dollars.

Ryan's client needs to perform its due diligence and properly investigate the feasibility of the project before laying down millions. Part of that due diligence involves obtaining a survey. A land survey is the scientific method of measuring the dimensions of a particular area of the Earth's surface. A survey measures the horizontal distances, directions, angles and elevations of the subject area. Artificial structures such as streets and buildings may also be noted on a survey.

Not all surveys are created equal. Some are rather simple, such as a survey to determine the boundaries of a typical residential suburban lot. However, investors and lenders will often demand a much more complex and detailed survey when it comes to commercial properties because of the amount of money involved, which brings us to ALTA surveys.

ALTA Survey

An ALTA survey is a survey that meets the minimum requirements set forth by the American Land Title Association. What separates an ALTA survey from others? ALTA surveys are often more comprehensive and therefore more complex. They also take a significant amount of time to do: think weeks instead of days. And they are expensive, easily costing thousands of dollars. All this means that they are really only justified if there is a significant amount of money at stake. This is why they are far more common in commercial real estate transactions compared with residential transactions for single-family homes.

Minimum ALTA Survey Requirements

ALTA surveys have minimum requirements, as well as optional requirements that a customer may request in the survey. The standards and requirements are lengthy and complex, so we're going to paint with pretty broad brush strokes.

The minimum standards include a standard of care that is imposed on the surveyor, which is that of a prudent surveyor. According to the standard, a prudent surveyor acts the same way that a reasonable surveyor would act in the same location. ALTA requirements also outline how the boundaries are to be resolved and provides measurement standards. Additionally, ALTA imposes research standards to be followed when searching the property records.

Surveyors also must meet certain standards when performing the survey out in the field. These include:

  • Identification and location of monuments (i.e., permanent reference points used in surveys, such as a brass disk, metal pipe or even a rock)
  • Evidence of rights of way and access to a public road as well as evidence of rights of way across the property held by those that don't own the property, such as walkways, private roads, alleys, and railroad tracks crossing the property
  • Evidence of people possessing or making improvements along the boundary, whether made by the owners of the surveyed property or by others adjoining the property
  • Location of buildings
  • Evidence of easements and servitudes, which are non-possessory rights held by another to make a specific use of the property of another, such as utility lines
  • Location of cemeteries
  • Location of water features.

The map created out of the survey process is also subject to minimum ALTA requirements. The map should include all the information we just discussed, as well as provide the current legal description of the property. If a new description is provided, an explanation for the change must be given. The survey will also provide the boundary (e.g., the perimeter bounding the area), including all relevant dimensions, from the point of beginning to the point the boundary closes. If part of the boundary involves a body of water, there are additional requirements.

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