(Matthew Staver/Bloomberg)

Myrna Keplinger is principal of The Settlement Group in Burke, Va.

A couple recently bought their dream home in Alexandria. It had everything on their wish list, including a back yard large enough for a swimming pool they always wanted.

All was well until the city denied their application to build the swimming pool because only half of that big back yard was actually theirs. How could this happen? The more appropriate question is: How could this have been avoided?

The simple answer is the couple could have obtained a house location survey when they bought the property. A survey at settlement would cost on average $275 to $450.

So, why is a house location survey so important? Here are a few reasons:

• It shows the location and existence of the property.

• It shows the relationship of the property to adjoining properties.

• It establishes discrepancies between actual occupation or use and the description of record.

• It indicates the location of physical improvements in relation to the property lines.

• A house location survey is the only reliable way of obtaining and confirming basic information about a property.

Many home buyers get a copy of an old plat and figure that it’s good enough. But have things changed on the property since the old survey was made? Have local laws changed that might affect your property rights? The perceived boundaries of a property, such as tree lines or that beautiful new fence in the back yard often differ from the actual recorded boundaries. Obtaining a survey prior to closing brings such discrepancies to light before it is too late.

It is critical to note that the house location survey must be read with the title report. Discrepancies encountered should be resolved before moving to settlement. Together, the house location survey and the title report form the basis for the issuance of insurance. Why accept a blanket exception on your title insurance when you can know about issues with a proper house location survey?

There are four elements of the survey process: research, fieldwork, computations and map making. A surveyor will research land records and other public files for information about the property and the adjoiners. They then perform onsite field work, including measuring physical improvements and locating all appropriate evidence of corner monumentation. The surveyor will then compare findings in the field with the description of record and finally draft a plat that shows property limits and the location of manmade features, such as power poles, manholes, drainage ditches, telephone and cable TV boxes. The surveyor shall note any discrepancies found on the plat.

House location surveys are so important that they are regulated by the District, Maryland and Virginia.

You should get a house location survey prior to planning new construction. Do not depend on a building contractor to determine your building location in relation to your lot lines. Building contractors are not land surveyors. Be sure that the home is in compliance with the zoning restrictions mandated by the local government and homeowners association.

In another case, a couple seeking to buy a house in Fairfax County learned through a house location survey that a portion of the property was in violation of a building restriction line. In other words, the house was built too close to the property line.

The buyers got the seller to address the issue before it became their problem. If they had not discovered this prior to the purchase, the buyers later on could have been subject to penalty from the homeowners association or a notice of violation from the zoning administrator. They could have been forced to remove the offending structure at any time or jeopardize future permits until the issue was resolved.

Sellers who want to make their properties more attractive to buyers should have a house location survey done before they put their property up for sale. This gives potential buyers confidence that property boundaries are clear before they commit to buying. 

When you buy, build, or modify your property, you don’t want surprises that can cost you major time and/or money. Get a house location survey done up front. Your home is one of the most important investments of your lifetime and is worth the comfort and security of knowing that what you see is what you’ll get.

Previously from Myrna Keplinger:

 Here’s what to expect at the closing