Pro tip: While “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” is a hilarious improv show, it’s not so funny when it becomes an accurate caption for your home renovation project.
Let’s be real, no one wants to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of home renovations. Who has time for a survey when there are plans to dream up and materials to source?
While the fun answer may be “ain’t nobody got time for that,” the real answer should always be you. You have time for a survey.
You know what you don’t have time for? Lengthy property disputes because you plowed ahead with a big project without bothering to figure out if you were putting it on your own property or your neighbor’s.
Still not convinced? Let’s break things down.
The quick answer is: the boundaries of your property or where the land you own ends.
The long answer is that there’s a bit of vocabulary confusion between property lines and lot lines. Some professionals use them interchangeably. Some use lot lines to mean the original lines from the original survey plat; and then use property lines to mean the verified, marked out lines on the actual property.
Now you’re probably wondering what a survey plat is. A survey plat is a to-scale map that shows where the divisions are for a piece of land. A survey plat of your neighborhood, for example would show the boundaries of the various lots.
No matter how you slice it, survey plats and lot lines both indicate where a landowner’s property ends and someone else’s begins.
The quick answer: Hire a surveyor.
The long answer is that while it’s really tempting to try and DIY to save money, you’re not going to get an accurate understanding of your property lines by traipsing about your backyard with your phone’s GPS. The equipment surveyors use is accurate to within a centimeter, and your GPS will get you within 10 or 15 feet. Big difference.
Hiring a surveyor will result in a permanent, accurate record of your property boundaries. That information will also be kept on public record forever.
Honestly? It’s in your best interest to hire a surveyor during the home-buying process.
It’s easy to trust what your real estate agent says or what physical markers like fences and landscaping indicate, but those can both be highly inaccurate. You may not want to add a $300 or $400 dollar surveying cost on top of inspection fees and closing costs, but a survey prior to buying can save you a world of headaches in the long run.
Of course, you can get a survey completed anytime. You haven’t missed your chance if you didn’t do it before closing.
Another natural time to get a survey is before a major renovation — putting an addition on your house, completing a major landscaping project or building a fence, shed, outbuilding, deck or patio all apply. Basically any major work that will take place outside the existing walls of your home is a good reason to get a survey done.
Surveys matter for renovations for a variety of reasons, but two of the biggest are neighborly disputes and zoning laws.
Thinking of starting one of those major outdoor renovations mentioned above? While you’re getting your survey done, go ahead and brush up on local zoning laws. They may affect anything from how far back from your property line outbuildings or fences must be placed to whether or not you can even add that new shed in the first place.
To be perfectly frank, someone is usually disappointed by the results of a survey: you or your neighbor. Either your property is smaller than you thought or your neighbor’s is smaller than they thought. While adjusting to the reality of the actual, mathematically verifiable property lines will be uncomfortable for everyone, it is far preferable to the nasty, volatile, protracted disputes that can erupt when unsurveyed renovations encroach on real or perceived property lines.
A survey will make sure you don’t accidentally build on your neighbor’s property. It will also make sure you’re protected in case your neighbor gets a bit shirty that you put your fence on what they —wrongly — believe to be their side of the property line.
And don’t forget: Engaging in a friendly talk with your neighbors about your upcoming project goes over a lot better than starting construction without giving them a head’s up.
No matter how you slice it, lot lines play a crucial role in any major outdoor renovation. To ignore lot lines is to invite nasty not-so-neighborly-fighting and to run the very real risk that you’ll be asked to tear down that fence or redo that addition you just shelled out big bucks to put up.
Avoiding those consequences boils down to three simple steps: get a professional property survey, follow local zoning laws and play nice with your neighbors.