When you see a specific acreage on a “for sale” sign, an on-line listing, a real estate flyer, or a printed ad, do you ever wonder where the exact acreage comes from? How do they know exactly how many acres they are selling? And, how do you know (for sure) how many acres you are buying? It might not surprise you if I told you that both sellers and seller’s agents often use the tax records, recorded deeds, wills, family records, drawings, court documents, historical documents, and many other sources to determine acreage. What may surprise you is that all of these can be, and quite often are…….wrong.
Hard to believe isn’t it? Deeds frequently use vague language like “100 acres more or less” to describe a property, and that description is often based on the language in a previous deed, which got its language from a previous deed, and so on. Family members will property to their heirs using acreage assessments based on what great grand-daddy said his father told him. Unfortunately, tax records and many other legitimate looking documents rely on these unreliable sources for their information, without doing any verification. I see it all the time, and I’ve personally been involved in numerous transactions where acreages were off…..sometimes WAY off.
Here are a few more questions. When you see an aerial map, how can you be sure the lines are correct? When you see flagged or painted trees, how can you be sure the lines are marked correctly? When you see obvious physical property features like a fence line, an obvious change in timber, or a metal stake, how can you be sure that’s where the property line is? The short answer to all of the above is……You can’t!
Boundary line mistakes, inaccuracies, and disputes happen every day. Landowners, agents, foresters, loggers, neighbors, and fence installers often get it wrong. To make matters worse, sometimes the lines move. This happens when the boundaries are based on the physical location of creeks and streams, roads, or on agreements made between amiable neighbors with short memories, all of which can change over time. Legendary family feuds (think Hatfields and McCoys) have started over simple boundary line disputes.
So, as a buyer, how do verify acreage and boundary lines? The only reliable, verifiable, and dependable source of exact acreage is a survey, performed by a licensed surveyor. If you don’t have one of these, you don’t know and can’t know exactly what the acreage is. And, unless the property lines are surveyed and marked by a surveyor, you won’t know and can’t prove where those are either. You should be aware, however, that surveyors rarely clear and mark the lines (either with flagging or paint) as part of the surveying process. If you want clearly marked property lines, you’ll need to ask for it and be prepared to pay a little extra to get it.
Does this mean you need to pay for a survey every time you purchase property? Not necessarily. Sometimes surveys exist, but are not recorded or referenced in the deed. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances in a deal where going without a survey is worth the risk. I’ve done it, but I don’t recommend it. However, if your purchase includes borrowing money from any lending institution, a title insurance policy, or subdividing a tract, you will almost always be required to have the property surveyed to close the deal. Even where there are existing, recorded surveys, there are times when paying for an updated survey is a good idea. When surveys are old (more than 25 years), there are possible boundary line encroachments or you suspect a potential dispute with a neighbor over fences, access, or easements, an updated survey is worth the investment. Remember that in any land deal everything is negotiable. If there is a potential dispute or uncertainty over acreage, boundary lines, easement location, or encroachments, it is not unreasonable to ask a seller to pay for all or part of the survey.
In any event, a good survey can provide some certainty around your land purchase and deliver some peace of mind, so you can be confident that the property you buy and the property you get are the same thing.