Surveying, also known as land surveying, is the science of determining the terrestrial two-dimensional or three-dimensional positions of points, as well as the angles and distances between them. These points are typically on the surface of the Earth, and they allow people to understand the boundaries of a property or a piece of land.

Land surveying is an important part of every construction project and it can be used for a variety of purposes, including but not limited to:

  • Establishing maps and boundaries of ownership
  • Finding our discrepancies between the boundaries of a property and its adjoining property;
  • Determining easements, rights-of-way, and abandoned roads;
  • Identifying existing improvements that have been made on a property;
  • Zoning and flooding classification

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are multiple types of surveys that can be ordered to a professional land surveyor, and not all surveys serve the same purpose or outline the same features of a property. 

ALTA survey vs boundary survey: types of land surveys

Types of land surveys

So, before we dive into explaining the differences of an ALTA survey vs Boundary survey, let’s take a look at some of the most important types of land surveys:

1. Boundary surveys

Boundary surveys are used to locate the corners, as well as the boundary lines of a property or a parcel of land. Boundary surveys can also be used for locating easement lines and encroachments. 

They are the most common type of land surveys, and they are usually commissioned before the purchase, division, improvement or construction of land.

2. ALTA surveys

ALTA surveys are a type of boundary survey, but they represent the highest standard in the land surveying industry due to its level of detail. 

They are typically used in commercial real estate transactions, and should adhere to the requirements set by the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

3. Topographic surveys

Topographic surveys serve the purpose of locating natural and man-made topographic features on a property or a parcel of land. This can include size, depth, heights, contours and surfaces, but also elevations and improvements, among others.

A topographic survey may be commissioned by a state or local government agency, or required by architects and engineers for planning improvements and developments on a property.

4. Location surveys

Location surveys, in a similar manner to boundary surveys, provide additional information regarding the location of interior improvements on the property in relation to its apparent boundary lines. 

They usually involve a physical inspection of the property or the parcel of land, and are used to meet the requirements of a zoning permit or loan application. 

5. Subdivision surveys

Subdivision surveys represent plots or maps that divide a parcel of land into smaller lots or estates for the development of a project or improvements on the property. The professional land surveyor will draw boundary lines inside the larger parcel to indicate the creation of new boundary lines.

Subdivision surveys are also known as partition surveys.

6. Site planning surveys

Site planning surveys, also known as civil drawings or site drawings, are a form of technical drawing that provides additional information to plan design developments and improvements before the construction of a new project.

alta survey vs boundary survey
ALTA survey vs boundary survey: differences

ALTA survey vs boundary survey: What’s the difference?

Now that we have cleared out the different types of land surveys that you can commission from a professional land surveyor, let’s focus on two of them: ALTA survey vs boundary survey. What are the key differences between them, who orders each one, and in what cases?

Let’s take a look:

1. Level of detail

The first important difference when it comes to an ALTA survey vs boundary survey is the level of detail at which each one is completed. 

A regular boundary survey shows the boundary lines between two plots of land. However, an ALTA survey doesn’t stop at that – in addition, it shows other precise details such as improvements, easements, means of access, zoning classification, boundary lines disputes, encroachments and more. 

When it comes to ALTA surveys, on top of the obligatory requirements that they should meet, they can also include optional details as requested by the customer. Some examples include flood zone classification, gross land area, vertical relief, location of utilities that exist on the property, and more.

2. Precision

Another factor when determining the key differences between an ALTA survey vs boundary survey is the level of precision of each type of survey. 

Precision is key when it comes to land surveying, and hiring a professional, highly experienced land surveyor with state-of-the-art equipment is a must to ensure that your survey is as high-quality as it can be. So, boundary surveys should always be highly precise when conducted by a good land surveyor. 

However, when it comes to precision and quality, there is one thing that makes ALTA surveys even more accurate. 

As we mentioned previously, they represent the highest standard in the land surveying industry, and the reason why is because they have to adhere to a set of rules set by the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

Because they have to conform to a national standard (as opposed to boundary surveys), and the land surveyor needs to go through records and use more advanced techniques to meet this standard, they tend to be much more precise and high-quality.

3. Use cases

When it comes to differentiating an ALTA survey vs boundary survey, it is also important to keep in mind when a client would need to order each one. 

Boundary surveys are usually used for both residential and commercial properties. Because they focus on defining the boundaries of a parcel of land, they are typically commissioned before the purchase, improvement, or construction on the land or property. 

In real estate transactions, it is important that the boundary survey is performed before the property is officially purchased. This will help to avoid future disputes with neighbors, as well as potential lawsuits that may come as a result from the dispute.

ALTA surveys, on another hand, are more often used for large commercial transactions. Some circumstances under which someone may order an ALTA survey include title insurance, compliance with local zoning ordinances, as well as for the purchase of vacant land.

ALTA surveys provide information that helps all participants in the commercial transaction avoid certain types of risk, especially if it can make or break an acquisition. They may reveal the existence of any problems that would need to be resolved, ensuring that the property is clear of any risk before the purchase.

An ALTA survey can also be performed when selling a commercial property so that the seller can have a record for comparison against the survey conducted by the buyer.

4. Client

When differentiating an ALTA survey vs boundary survey, another thing to keep in mind is who orders them. 

While there are no legal requirements when it comes to who orders or pays for a land survey, usually the party who requests it is the one that pays it. However, this may vary depending on the occasion. For example, let’s take a look at boundary surveys:

  • Selling a portion of the property – for example, if you are dividing property to transfer ownership, your local county or municipal jurisdiction may request a boundary survey. 
  • Important home improvements – in order to issue a building permit, some cities or areas may ask for a boundary survey if you are planning to do major improvements to your land or property.
  • Homebuyer – of course, a homebuyer may decide to order a boundary property for himself (without it being required for a specific purpose). For example, he may want to define the property’s boundary lines as precisely as possible to avoid dispute with neighbors.

An ALTA survey is commonly ordered by a homebuyer on behalf of insurance companies, lenders, and attorneys, or any other participant in the commercial real estate transaction that could be involved in the purchase of the land or property. 

They are important for making due diligence decisions, as well as to protect buyers from adverse claims.

In the case of ALTA surveys, the owner of the property or plot of land is the one who has to order an ALTA survey. Even if an insurer company or a buyer requests the survey, the owner is the one who has to consent to it. In case of ordering the survey for another party, the party will have to provide written consent.

5. Time and cost

And last but not least, a major difference between an ALTA survey vs boundary survey is the cost. 

Because ALTA surveys require more details, level of precision and have to adhere to the highest standards set by the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), they also tend to be more expensive, and require more time to complete.

An ALTA survey typically starts at $2,000 for less complex projects, and can take several months to complete. 

ALTA survey vs boundary survey: cost difference

In contrast, a boundary survey starts at $500, and can take around 2 weeks to complete. However, where there is an urgency and the client wants the land survey to be completed faster (which also costs more), a boundary survey can be executed between 5 and 10 days or less depending on the availability of the surveyor.

Of course, the cost and time for both types of surveys will vary depending on a variety of factors, including: 

  • The complexity of the project;
  • The size of the property;
  • Vegetation on the property (especially along boundary lines);
  • The terrain of the property;
  • Time of year, weather conditions and temperature;
  • The type of legal description;
  • Age of deed and other documents;
  • The emergency for the completion of the project.

For ALTA surveys, it is important to keep in mind that the cost may go up if the client selects optional features from Table A as defined in the Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys.

For example, optional specifications such as monuments, food zone classification, exterior dimensions of all buildings at ground level, gross land area, vertical relief and more. And now, let’s make some conclusions regarding ALTA survey vs boundary survey:

ALTA survey vs boundary survey: conclusion

In conclusion, while ALTA surveys are a type of boundary survey, there are some major differences that have to be taken into account. If you have doubts regarding which one you may need in your particular case, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Are you looking for an ALTA survey or a boundary survey? Tucker Engineering is a highly experienced team with over 25 years of experience of land surveying. Contact us today and get started with your project.