Tips on rural land surveys

By Tom Brickman on August 21, 2013

Let’s say you are looking at an 80 acre tract of land to buy that has not been surveyed.

Should you purchase a survey before buying?

The answer, is “it depends”.

Source of the acres

The advertised acres may come from authoritative sources such as a deed or the county tax office.  But, most deeds assume that a “forty” (1/16 of a section) is 40 acres when in fact very few “forty’s” are actually 40 acres.  And, the tax office may use expensive software to estimate acres.  But, we’ve seen tax acres be significantly wrong.  Fact is, unless a property has been surveyed, no one knows exactly how many acres are present.

In Alabama, most rural properties have never been surveyed.  The reason is surveys are expensive ($3,000 to $6,000 for our 80 acre example) and the precision may not be that important to many people.

So, here are some tips to keep in mind:

Tips to keep in mind

1.Be sure the precision matters.  Let’s say you just spent $3,000 to learn that your “80ty” is really 78.  You probably haven’t gained much.

2. Do a “rough check” on acres.  You can do this by plotting the boundary lines on an aerial photo (like Google Earth or Bing).  By using “use lines” as a guide (for example, a neighbors pasture edge or an adjoining recent timber harvest) you can plot the lines and use the photo scale to estimate acres.  Or, walk the lines looking for old wire fences and rock-pile corners. If you can find physical evidence of lines on the ground, then you can pace the lines (or use a hand-held GPS) to get a “rough check”.  Also, there are commercial “topo” software programs available that you can use to plot the boundary lines and calculate acres.  These are especially useful if you have also ground checked the lines.  Your forester or rural land broker can help with performing a “rough check”.

3. Sometimes a survey is prudent.  If your rough check raises concerns (or you can’t get a rough check), or your lender requires a survey, or you you are uncomfortable with the ambiguity, then a survey may be in order.  A situation where extra precaution is justified is when one or more property boundaries is the run of a large creek or river.   These can change course over the years, and a 100 year old deed may no longer contain the correct acres. Or, when a physical inspection reveals that neighbors may be “possessing” over the line.

Also, keep in mind that in today’s world, surveys are made by locating property corners with a GPS.  This has lowered the cost of getting an acreage estimate because surveyors don’t have to “run the lines”.  They just go to the corners.  But, if locating or marking property lines is important to you, make sure your surveyor has been retained for this task too.

Avoid the cost if you can

Our experience is that with a little effort, most people can gain a level of comfort with the advertised acres and thus avoid the expense of a survey.




4 thoughts on “Tips on rural land surveys

  1. My husband is looking into buying some land to farm but was unsure about whether to survey or not. I like how you mentioned that a survey can provide a precise measurement of the land so that you aren’t spending more for non-existent land. Thanks for the advice, we’ll have to get a survey before we buy any land.

  2. My best advice is to get a survey if you are not comfortable with the acres.

    But you’ve gained little if the survey cost $5,000, only to learn you have 1 acre more than you thought worth $1,500/acre.

  3. Tom, the advice that you gave about doing a rough check on acres sounds about right. What you mentioned in the article got me thinking about the work that the land surveyors will be doing in my yard. My wife and I ended up talking with one to help us out in establishing the corners and lines of our yard.

  4. I agree that precision really matters when conducting a land survey. I would imagine that finding someone who will precisely measure everything would be really important. I’m looking for someone to conduct a land survey on a piece of property I just bought so I’ll have to find someone who will conduct a precise survey.

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