The Importance of ALTA Surveying

When there’s a question involving real estate, it’s common for a purchaser, attorney, title insurance company, lender or developer to request an American Land Title Association (ALTA) survey. Although many other types of land surveys exist, ALTA surveys are the most commonly used survey in real estate.

Why are ALTA surveys such a routine part of land transaction and development? In short: because they’re the most comprehensive. They plot the exact location of each element in a title report, outline any easements or encroachments on the property, and generally provide an insightful, informative lay of the land. They include everything you need to know about how to proceed with the land in question. 

Here’s a brief guide to ALTA surveys, and why they’re so important to the development process. 

What is an ALTA survey? 

An ALTA survey is a comprehensive evaluation of land that highlights a wide variety of critical information. ALTA surveys show property boundaries, access points and insurance risks; confirm accurate site size; highlight building and improvement footprints; and so much more. 

Every ALTA survey is a record of evidence that verifies the description in the land purchase agreement reflects the true state of the property. ALTA surveys need to be up to date, so purchasers, lenders, developers and more often require a new survey if the most recent one is six months or older. It’s about having the necessary and vital information to handle the land appropriately. 

What happens during an ALTA survey?

ALTA surveys are governed by the standards set by the American Land Title Association and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping. Every legitimate ALTA survey follows the same general process:

  1. Research. Before the survey team’s boots hit the ground, they conduct in-depth research into public and private land records to gather any and all information about the land as it exists currently. 
  2. Field investigation. Surveyors head to the site to search for original boundary lines and survey markers. Depending on the contours and features of the terrain, this can be a lengthy process.
  3. Field analysis. Survey teams use a variety of tools to record important details about the land, including access points, building locations, bodies of water, fences, potential encroachments, utilities and more.
  4. Mapping. From the information gathered in the field, survey teams create plots or maps with detailed notes. This is especially important for land developers, since they’ll rely on accurate land maps for project planning. 
  5. Review. The requestor of the ALTA survey looks over the documents, provides feedback regarding areas of concern and sends the survey back to the principal surveyor for a signature, if everything looks good.

5 key concerns ALTA surveys address

Developers, lenders, purchasers—any party involved in a real estate transaction—must carefully evaluate the benefits and potential risks before transacting a property. As you review an ALTA survey, make sure it addresses the following key concerns:

  • Easements. One of the most important considerations of any land purchase, look closely at the easements on a particular property. This refers to other land owners’ right to use the land. By examining easements, you’ll understand how they benefit or burden the property.
  • Encroachments. Encroachment refers to any overlap of an improvement from one property onto another one. Developers will closely at an ALTA survey to discover whether there are any encroachments on the property in question. While some are easy to fix, others can be prohibitively expensive.
  • Legal description. When you, or another party, first orders an ALTA survey, it’s wise to request that the surveyor drafts a legal description of the property. A third-party description can be used to quickly compare against the description found in the property title and deed.
  • Setback violations. Zoning ordinances can be tricky, and you need to look out for setback violations on any ALTA survey. These situations occur when improvements are too close to property lines than local zoning ordinances allow. 
  • Access. How can you—or future residents—access the property in question? ALTA surveys should clearly identify whether you’ll have access to a dedicated roadway or not. If a property is landlocked, you won’t have a legal way to access the area until you receive an easement for ingress or egress.

The bottom line: ALTA surveys are important

In any real estate transaction, an ALTA survey is one of the most critical documents. It can be used both during the sale and in any potential legal disputes down the road. This is crucial since you can’t compare the legal description with the land as it is without an official survey. It also reveals all sorts of useful information you won’t find in title insurance documents, letting the buyer know if the property is in violation of any applicable ordinances. 

In short, an ALTA survey is beneficial both in the short- and long-term because it safeguards against legal disputes—and provides you with the evidence you need should the situation arise.

Essential due diligence for any development project 

ALTA surveys are an important step in any development process, and you need the right team on your side to use the information they contain to get your project off the ground. The team at Sandbox Development Consultants adds value and improves efficiency at every stage in the process, performing all due diligence—including in-depth reviews of ALTA surveys—to assess potential risks and provide recommendations and timelines to resolve any concerns. 

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