What is an ALTA boundary survey, who issues one, and when do you need it? Continue reading to learn more!

ALTA surveys play a major role when it comes to title insurance, real estate transactions, and the acquisition of mortgages.

As opposed to boundary surveys, which define the boundary lines between two plots of land, they provide a more comprehensive overview of a property including improvements, risks, and other features of the property that may affect ownership.

In this article, we will discuss exactly what is an ALTA boundary survey, what are the most common requirements, and most importantly – when do you need to request one.

1. What is an ALTA boundary survey?

An ALTA boundary survey is a type of boundary survey conducted by an ALTA survey company that provides a more comprehensive and detailed land parcel map of a property along with the existing improvements that have been made on it, an assessment of possible risks, rights of ways, means of access to the property, and other features.

ALTA surveys conform to the rules set by the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), and are often required by lenders and insurance companies. 

The ALTA standards that all surveys of this type have to meet are denoted in the Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys.

While an ALTA survey is a type of boundary survey, there is one major difference, and it’s the length of detail in which ALTA surveys go to define a property’s boundaries and easements.

This includes, but is not limited, to:

  •  Information about improvements made to the property, such as roads, fences, trails and other features that may affect ownership and require further investigation;
  • Means of access to the property
  • Zoning classification, including a flood zone classification;
  • Areas that indicate potential future use of the property
  • Boundary line disputes and encroachments;

Due to the detailed level of information, typically required by insurance companies, commercial real estate purchasers or lenders, an ALTA boundary survey usually costs more than a regular boundary survey.

2. Why is there an ALTA boundary survey standard?

Because the practice of land surveying can vary greatly between different states, causing due diligence issues when it comes to the financing and insuring of real estate properties, land surveyors, title insurers and lenders decided to unite forces and establish a consistent national standard

This set of minimum standards was set back in 1962 by the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the American Congress of Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), whose legal successor is now the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

It was created with the purpose of being relied upon nationwide by the above-mentioned parties, which are the ones that take part in a real estate transaction. Since then, it has been adapted and modified various times in order to address every due diligence issue that came up over the years.

In other words, the minimum ALTA boundary survey standards were created with the purpose of establishing a common language between everyone and across all states. 

3. What are the minimum standard requirements for an ALTA boundary survey?

When conducting an ALTA boundary survey, land surveyors should include some specific information to provide a clear understanding between the insured, the client (in case it’s different from the insured), the title insurance company, the lender, and of course – the surveyor itself.

According to the American Land Title Association (ALTA), the minimum standard requirements for an ALTA survey are:

  1. On-site fieldwork
  2. The preparation of a plat or map
  3. Any optional information requested by the client
  4. A certification

Let’s take a deeper look at each requirement:

3.1. On-site fieldwork

One of the main requirements set by ALTA and NSPS is on-site fieldwork. It should be performed on the ground (except as otherwise negotiated by the client), and it should include the following:

  • Monuments – location, size, character and type;
  • Rights of way and access – such as the distance from the corners of the surveyed property to the nearest right of way line, or the name of any street/highway/private or public way abutting the surveyed property;
  • Lines of possession and improvements along the boundaries – including the character and location of evidence of possession or occupation by occupants of the surveyed property, as well as adjoiners.
  • Buildings – the survey should also outline the location of buildings on the property that’s being surveyed, observed in the process of conducting the fieldwork.
  • Easements and servitudes – which includes evidence of any easements or servitudes that could be burdening the property that’s object of the survey.
  • Cemeteries – the perimeter (as accurate as possible) of cemeteries and burial grounds, as well as precise location of isolated gravesites;
  • Water features – the location of springs, streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, swamps and other water sources that are running through the property – or outside, but within five feet of it. It should also include the location of water features that are forming a boundary of the surveyed property.

To sum it up, the standard requires the provision of detailed and comprehensive information regarding the features and boundaries of the property that were observed during the fieldwork. You can see the full details in the Minimum standard detail requirements.

3.2. The preparation of a plat or map

According to the standard set by ALTA and NSPS, a plat or map of the surveyed property should show the following information, according to the surveyor’s professional opinion based on the planned use of the property:

  • Boundary, descriptions, dimensions, and closures of the surveyed property;
  • Easements and servitudes;
  • Rights of way and access, as well as the necessary documents;

In addition, the land surveyor should draw the plat or the map on a sheet with a minimum size of 8 ½ by 11 inches at a standard engineering scale that’s easy to read, and includes details such as clearly distinguished boundaries, a legend of symbols and abbreviations, a vicinity map, supplementary diagrams, the dates of any revisions, and more.

3.3. Optional survey details

Apart from the obligatory requirements, the customer may also request optional information to be added to their ALTA boundary survey. This can include:

  • Monuments that are placed at all major corners of the boundary of the property;
  • Addresses of the surveyed property;
  • Flood zone classification depicted by scaled map location & graphic plotting;
  • Gross land area, or other areas that may be requested by the client;
  • Vertical relief with the source of information;
  • Substantial features such as billboards, signs, landscaped areas and more;
  • Number and type of parking spaces and parking areas;
  • Location of utilities that exist on the property, or are serving it;
  • Evidence of recent earth moving work;

And more. These optional items of the ALTA boundary survey are typically negotiated by the land surveyor and the client, and they should be clearly identified and explained in the final documentation of the survey.

3.4. Certification

Additionally, the plat or map of an ALTA boundary survey should bear the following certification (without any alterations):

To (name of insured, if known), (name of lender, if known), (name of insurer, if known), (names of others as negotiated with the client): 

This is to certify that this map or plat and the survey on which it is based were made in accordance with the 2016 Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys, jointly established and adopted by ALTA and NSPS, and includes Items ___________ of Table A thereof. The fieldwork was completed on ___________ [date]. 

Date of Plat or Map: ___________ (Surveyor’s signature, printed name and seal with Registration/License Number) 

This certification is important in order to ensure that the ALTA boundary survey meets the minimum standard detail requirements as defined by the American Land Title Association and the National Society of Professional Surveyors.

what is an alta boundary survey

4. Do I really need an ALTA survey?

You may need an ALTA boundary survey under the following circumstances:

4.1. Title insurance

Title insurance is one of the biggest reasons why ALTA surveys are obtained. They allow the title insurance company to remove the “survey exception” on the policy, which means that it will exclude from coverage any items that can be discovered by a survey. 

Additionally, ALTA surveys allow insurance companies to provide coverage against items that are not covered by standard policies, such as zoning violations or lack of access.

An ALTA boundary survey plays a huge role when it comes to transactional due diligence for a commercial real estate purchase or refinancing. They not only help to lower risk for future owners, but also give sellers critical information to help them make better decisions.

4.2. Compliance

Another reason why someone may request an ALTA survey is to ensure compliance with local zoning ordinances. 

For example, adding some optional items – such as zoning classification and building height) can provide the buyer with enough information to determine if the property is in compliance with local zoning ordinances before completing the purchase.

4.3. Purchase of vacant land

An ALTA boundary survey may also be required upon the purchase of a vacant land if the buyer has the intention of developing it further. 

While a regular boundary survey might be enough in some cases, in many occasions the vacant land has never been surveyed or it was a long time ago with less accurate technologies.

In these cases, an ALTA survey can reveal possible ownership, boundary and encroachment issues that can be solved before you invest a lot of money into developing the property only to find out that it’s not within your legal boundaries.

To sum it up, property owners usually use ALTA surveys when conducting commercial real estate transactions, especially when they need a more in-depth understanding of the land and the legal boundaries they have on it.

In most cases, property owners already know that they will need to get an ALTA boundary survey because the interested party – for example, the title insurance company – will let them know that they will need one. 

Insurers will usually ask for an evaluation of the land to ensure that it meets the criteria set by ALTA and NSPS.

5. How to get an ALTA survey

Due to their detailed and exhaustive nature, as well as the importance that they play in commercial real estate transactions, ALTA surveys represent the highest standard in the land surveying industry. 

They also have to be extremely precise – for this reason, it’s important to select a land surveyor that not only has the team, license and experience to conduct them, but also works with the latest technologies to ensure that they are as accurate as possible.

Tucker Engineering can prepare your ALTA boundary survey to ensure that it adheres to the highest standards. With our state-of-the-art technology and over 25 years of experience, we are the land surveyor that you need for your real estate transactions.

Need more information? Get in touch with us today!