Let’s say you are looking at an 80 acre tract of rural land for sale 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. 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 some rural areas, most properties have never been surveyed. The reason is because surveys are expensive ($3,000 to $6,000 for our 80 acre example) and the precision may not be that important to many people.
Tips to Keep in Mind
- Be sure the precision matters. Let’s say you just spent $3,000 to learn that your 80 is really 78. You probably haven’t gained much.
- 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 acreage. 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”.
- 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 are uncomfortable with the ambiguity, then a survey may be in order. A situation where extra precaution can be 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.
This article is an excerpt from Tom Brickman’s e-book, “Buying Rural Land: Tips and How-to’s”, a collection of well-written, quick reads to help you find a rural property you’ll love and simplify getting it done. Download the e-book and learn from a seasoned pro with 40 years of experience.
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