Land surveying can be defined as a scientific or legally sufficient method to determine the location of points on the surface of the earth, the angles formed by such points, the distance between them. According to historical records, land surveying was practiced by the ancient Egyptians even prior to the construction of the Great Pyramids. Surveyors in ancient Egypt and other people interested in civil law recognized the importance of surveying in civilized society and began keeping a registry of land surveys as early as 3000 BC.
As a scientific method of inquiry and research, land surveys incorporate elements of geometry, physics, math, engineering, and law into their determination. Land surveys satisfy important needs in many fields. For example, topographic surveys are used by geologists and cartographers in order to create elevation maps. Archaeologists refer to current and historic surveys prior to conducting excavations.
Engineers and builders will not risk beginning a new construction project without reliable surveys onsite. Real estate and mortgage professionals require knowledge of land boundaries and precisely where a building structure is located prior to closing a transaction. Title insurers, attorneys, and judges depend on the accuracy of legal descriptions provided by a land survey in order to resolve property litigation issues.
The basic legal purpose of land surveying is to determine boundaries. This can be accomplished by establishing where the metes and bounds of land begin and end. Civilized society has depended on the accuracy of land boundaries to respect the borders of sovereign states, jurisdictions, municipalities, land use planning, and private property. To this extent, different types of land surveys are used these days to recognize and respect boundaries.
American Land Title Association (ALTA) survey
In the United States, the real estate and mortgage lending industries rely on whether the title to a property can be insured or if it is ¨marketable¨. This means whether an insurance company would consider taking the risk of issuing a policy insuring ownership, or if the land and structures attached to it can be readily transferred without fear of outside claims. The American Land Title Institute, along with the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping and the National Society of Professional Surveyors, have adopted and developed a set of minimum standard detail requirements for land surveys to be used in any legal matters pertaining to the transfer and conveyance of real estate. The ALTA survey is essentially a boundary survey that meets and exceeds the standards set in different states. In most cases, ALTA surveys are thought of being legally sufficient. These comprehensive surveys require written authorization from the client. Many important issues are addressed in ALTA surveys: boundaries, structural location, easements, encroachments, estoppels, etc.
All countries in the world posses some type of land registry records system that identifies boundaries. In the United States, for example, the Public Land Survey System keeps plats, diagrams, sketches, maps, and other documents that establish the boundaries of all public and governmental use lands in the country. This is known as a cadastral system. Local governments have an interest in land surveying for the purpose of taxation. A cadastral survey is a search conducted from records kept in a public land record registry. Comprehensive land surveys such as the ALTA include cadastral surveying.
Government offices that issue building permits will often require a minimum of a boundary survey or sketch prior to granting commencement of construction work. The property lines must be clearly defined in these surveys in order to spot possible issues such as easements and encroachments.
Site planning survey
In addition to identifying boundaries and obtaining the required building permits, architects and engineers will need a topographic survey that identifies elevation features in order to create a site plan. Construction of tall structures often requires the review of site planning surveys prior to breaking ground.
The construction of new housing complexes that include several units arranged in neighborhood blocks often requires that a tract of parcel of land be divided into smaller parts. To this effect, a subdivision survey that includes topographical elements must be used. This type of survey is not only used for construction purposes. Lot design, drainage, street access, landscaping, utility mapping, and recording are also dependent on subdivision surveys.
In certain mortgage lending operations, a simple review of existing surveys, public records, and other legal documents may be sufficient to prove ownership, easements, and/or encroachments. While mortgage inspections may include a sketch and even indicate boundaries, these are not true surveys.
The rising popularity of geographical positioning systems has found its way in land surveying. While GPS surveys are not as complete as ALTA surveys, they are being used for urban planning and to augment the cadastral recording systems. The useful Geographic and Land Information Systems rely on GPS data, and these systems are increasingly being used as reference by land surveyors.
Court Exhibit or Judicial Survey
In property litigation, a court may appoint an expert land surveyor to provide careful and detailed analysis of legal descriptions, prior surveys, maps, recorded documents, and other existing evidence in order to settle a dispute over real estate.