Surveying our property
February 5, 2015 9:50 AM   Subscribe

We need to survey our 3 acre property in a semi urban area. The surveyor claims to have a very hard time to find data to start with. I am wandering in the era of precision GPS, areal survey's with drones etc that if there isn't a much more efficient way of getting the data that is needed for our Landscape architect to to work in his CAD programs. I understand that there is a big responsibility on the surveyor when it comes to lot lines and when construction has to take place right at the edge with the neighbors.

Our main goal is to obtain a accurate 3D digital model of our lot so we can use Google SketchUp to plan the position of the various buildings, outside area's and planting. Since we want te design the house with passive solar heating etc we need to be able to do extensive 3D modeling to avoid costly changes during the construction....

Non of the Surveyors is really open about their process and what it involves. I have the feeling that we are taken advantage of and that they fear the competition of the new technologies coming to town and that their $10 - $15K fee is on the line by the new competition who might do this for 1/10th of their price...
posted by Mac-Expert to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
The county records office doesn't generally use lat/lon. Plats show things relative to others, generally, and depending on when the land was subdivided/made into lots etc there may be a stone, iron rod, or nothing indicating lot line boundary.

So if the surveyor has to dig through a lot of archival records and plats to find where the boundaries are (or supposed to be, or landmarks for the boundaries that may or may not still exist), you're gonna have to pay for it, and it's better to pay now than pay later (ie after you've built on land that ain't yours etc).
posted by k5.user at 10:10 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

The surveyor may be referring to difficulty finding reliable public records that document the lot lines of your property. This is info typically available in the City/County Records office. One may have to research old deeds and survey maps for such info as "Starting from metal pipe 3' from the corner of A ST and B Ave on bearing 245', 23", 33 sec, proceed 45' 3" to SW corner of lot ABCD" , and etc.
Even if this is available, the surveyor may not be able to locate the referenced metal pipe.

There is no new technology that can replace such information, and the new technology needs this info to accurately superimpose the lot lines on a satellite photo.

If your contract includes setting new boundary markers and locating offsets for construction, and if your property has multiple odd sides (not just a rectangle), then a 10K fee may not be unreasonable if a records search is required.

do you have survey info from when you purchased the property?
posted by TDIpod at 10:14 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is the surveyor actually doing the mapping for you or just delineating the boundaries? That seems a bit high for boundaries, depending on details of paperwork and terrain, but its a hell of a deal for a 3 acre topo map.
posted by fshgrl at 10:34 AM on February 5, 2015

For example for $1000 you can't even hardly get a city lot surveyed, with monuments nearby and clear line of sight for easy surveying. It's still a few hours on the ground, typically for two people and a few hours of research and report writing. Over a day and halfs worth of work. You can't hire anyone to do that for less than $1000. You are being unrealistic that there is anyone out there who will survey a hilly 3 acre lot with no monuments nearby and possibly paperwork issues (easements, poor documentation in the past, conflict with neighbors) for $1000-$1500. Drones? No.
posted by fshgrl at 10:39 AM on February 5, 2015

You could have a go at it yourself to see what all is involved. Found at random, see Perform Your Own Home Property Survey from Mother Earth News. The article is dated from 1986, so I'm guessing it's copied from a printed article, but as everyone else is saying here, land descriptions are not by lat-long, but start with physical markers.

Once you have the boundary surveyed, then you can talk about 3D mapping your property.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:56 AM on February 5, 2015

A three dimensional topographic survey of 3 acres is not cheap. Generally this is done by overflying the terrain and using a technique called LIDAR. It is typically done on a city/county/state scale and then you go and pay the municipality or state for data you need. As you can imagine renting a plane and the equipment for just 3 acres isn't realistic.

The backup way that is done (even inside LIDAR imaged areas) is set up a base station with a GPS receiver than walk over the site to get data accurate within an inch or two. This is AMAZING btw if you have never done survey work. When i started engineering(almost 20 years ago now) within a FOOT was pretty good outside of urban areas. This is generally only done for really critical things like making sure a sewer will flow properly (water doesn't flow uphill regardless of how good an engineer you are) or matching existing roadways and especially for flood plain issues (which is its own joke because most of the flood plain mapping was done 40+ years ago using USGS quad maps with 20' vertical resolution).

Setting up the GPS base station is no trivial matter. If you have a presurveyed benchmark close by to set it up on and a differential reading station nearby it can be kinda easy, although still requires substantial post processing.

If you don't have a good benchmark you have to first set that up using a line from an existing good one. In a rural area this can be it's own substantial task.

As you can see it can quickly snowball. so for a three acre topo map with accurate boundaries 10-15k is actualy pretty good. The surveyors aren't explaining why to your satisfaction due to the fact it isn't easy to explain, most of their clientele are fairly sophisticated institutions with their own engineers or developers/large land owners that already understand or don't care-they just want it done and so lengthy explanations/educations aren't part of their daily tasks. Also they have a fairly difficult licensure requirements (the time/education involved isn't all that different from lawyers and doctors), insurance (again like doctors malpractice) and very serious legal responsibilities. You are paying for all that as well. Just like a doctors.

This is likely your largest fiscal asset, do you want to go with the low bidder on something that represents you life's work?
posted by bartonlong at 11:00 AM on February 5, 2015 [9 favorites]

Thanks for all the answers. Its still not entirely clear to me why anno 2015 we still deal with such outdated county records. Wile the country has the capability to put a missile trough a window over 800 miles distance using gps..
No I don't want to cheapskate myself out of this and do understand that this data is the foundation under the development of our property. Its just that I want to be informed and understand why he is claiming to have such a hard time etc etc.
Might have to look for a new surveyor and leave the deposit behind. He is not a good communicator and misplaced critical information we provided him (County records) what contain the info he was looking for. Since creating and maintaining records is such a critical part of the Surveyors job I am worried... Will see what happens over the next few weeks.

Meantime I might get that drone survey just for comparison and have the additional hi resolution arial images with other data (witch can be imported in SketchUp...). Cant hurt..
posted by Mac-Expert at 6:07 PM on February 5, 2015

A lot of what you are paying for with a property boundary survey is the legal liability -- if a surveyor screws up and you build on what is actually the neighbor's parcel, then they will end up in court. You are also paying the hourly cost for them to do the research to turn the verbal legal description of the property into a survey, which sometimes isn't a trivial process.

Getting both a boundary survey and a topo survey, and at a high degree of accuracy, is going to be expensive no matter what. Your costs sound a bit high to me, though perhaps there is something difficult or risky about your project. (I don't mean high risk in terms of danger to the worker, but rather a high risk project where they need to charge more because the client is problematic, there is a risk of being sued, or the municipality makes things difficult). I recently paid about the same as your upper quote for a boundary/topo survey on a much larger parcel (and with some difficult access issues and for a high risk project), but we just needed to catch slopes and breaklines and confirm previous topo data, not map the entire surface with the accuracy it sounds like you want.

For design purposes, I would think you could manage with a basic boundary survey plus adequate but not perfect topo data. Ideally someone will have spent public money to fly LIDAR as explained above -- it often has to be done for flood inundation mapping, and once the Army Corps of Engineers or FEMA has that data it should be publicly available. Even if the data is free, though, expect to pay for a few hours of someone's time to deal with the data acquisition and analysis necessary to produce a useable surface. Moreover, remember that LIDAR is usually not all that accurate, though it should be good enough for getting a surface for your property especially if you will be reworking the landscape.

For really tight accuracy, you'll want someone with a robotic total station or an RTK unit to make a surface of the property. I'm surprised your architect/designer doesn't know an engineer or an engineering tech who does that work -- you probably don't need the cost of a licensed surveyor for this, unless again there are risks to the project that make that necessary.

tl;dr: Use the licensed surveyor to get an accurate boundary survey, and explore cheaper options for getting the necessary level of topo data. If your landscape architect can't help solve this, they might not be the right person for the job. If there are high risk aspects to the project, pay for the best surveyor in the area no matter what they cost.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:05 PM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

re: outdated county records -- who is going to pay for the sheer person-hours to go out and re-survey everything using GPS to record all the line marks/corners ? And who will assume the liability for any/all errors that would crop up during the transition to lat/lon ? It's a hugely entrenched system where change-over costs and risks can't overcome the benefits.

There was a bit of discussion about how deeds/titles are done (with lots/survey being a part of that job) on the blue which would give you more history on why things are they way they are, the possible solutions (with their own problems) etc.
posted by k5.user at 6:38 AM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

About a year ago I got several quotes for surveys of an approximately 2.5 acre area of a larger site. They ranged from $4400 to $8900. This in a urban area with strong municipal and utility survey records. In addition to how much research is needed, exactly what you need surveyed will affect the cost. The survey I had quoted included point elevations of site features and at a 25' grid across the site, utilities shown on utility records and our own record drawings, and elevations of inlets and similar. We then paid another $4000 for ground penetrating radar to locate utilities. A further level of detail is required for most 3D modeling, and yet another level if you are getting into modeling hydrology. Just getting the boundary of my row house lot flagged - no drawing - was $700, and that's with very clear documentation available to the surveyors in a few minutes online.
posted by sepviva at 11:24 AM on February 9, 2015

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