QWhen we settled on our house, the settlement attorney charged us $225 for a survey. When we questioned this charge, we were told it was a lender's requirement and we could do nothing about it. Just what is a survey?

AI hope the lawyer at least gave you a copy of the survey.

It is important to distinguish between an appraisal and a survey. Buyers are generally charged for both.

An appraisal assists the mortgage lender in assessing the value of the house in order to determine whether a loan should be made and for what amount. Generally, the appraisal will analyze the condition of the house, its location and structural soundness, as well as comparable sales.

A survey, in contrast, determines whether the house is within the property borders, whether there are any encroachments on the property by neighbors and the extent to which any easements on the property may affect legal title.

Up until the mid-1980s, mortgage lenders did not require a survey.

But this has changed. Title companies, when issuing a title insurance policy, will issue an exception to title unless a survey has been obtained. Because lenders insist on obtaining a clear lender's title insurance policy covering the face value of the mortgage, it becomes necessary to obtain a survey to satisfy the lender's requirements.

Everyone buying a house should obtain a survey, whether or not the lender requires it. Even if you pay all cash for your house, you should insist on a survey.

It is a good idea to learn, for example, where your property lines are, and whether any building restrictions affect your right to add a porch or a fence.

Here are some suggestions involving the survey process.

First, survey prices vary considerably. I've seen them as low as $150 and as high as $300 for the same single-family house. Ask your settlement attorney for an estimate. If it seems too high, arrange for your own survey and make sure a copy of the survey gets to your lender well in advance of settlement.

The work must be done by a qualified surveyor, licensed in the state where your property is located.

Next, ask your sellers who did their survey. Most lenders will not honor a survey if it is more than six months old, but perhaps the old survey can be updated by the prior surveyor. Many reputable surveyors are happy to get your business and will give you a break on the price.

Additionally, if you are refinancing your home, most lenders and title insurance companies are willing to accept a survey affidavit instead of a new survey. You will have to sign an affidavit that no improvements have been made to the property since you bought it. These affidavits are available at a minimum cost.

You should also go to the government surveyors in the land records office where your property is located. They are quite helpful and may be able to assist you with boundary questions, easement issues and such.

If you are buying a condominium unit, you will not have to obtain or pay for a separate survey of your unit. That survey has already been done as part of the plans that were recorded with the condominium documents.

The typical survey that most purchasers obtain when they go to closing is called a "house location" survey. Title insurance generally will exclude from coverage "encroachments, overlaps, boundary line disputes and any other matters which would be disclosed by an accurate survey and inspection of the premises."

The title insurance industry takes the position that a house location survey is not such an "accurate survey," and thus will reject many claims regarding boundary disputes on this basis. (But they will still issue the insurance that the lender needs, so that requirement is met.)

To obtain full title insurance coverage, the purchaser should obtain what is known as an ALTA (American Land Title Association) survey. This is a detailed, comprehensive survey that will cost considerably more than the house location survey. Most residential buyres, however, would rather not spend that additional money and will take a chance that the house location survey will adequately protect them.

Finally, keep in mind that most surveys will not include staking your property corners. If you want stakes posted, it will cost you more. You can arrange for stakes when you order the survey.

When you go to settlement, ask the settlement attorney to review the survey with you and discuss any potential issues. Are the fences encroaching on your neighbor's property? Do you own the driveway, or is it shared? Who owns any trees that are on the property? Once you buy the property, it may be too late to raise boundary-related issues.

And don't forget to get a copy of the survey from your closing attorney before you leave the settlement table.

Benny L. Kass is a Washington lawyer. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers may also send questions to him at that address.