If you want to make additions to your property like putting in a pool, building a wall or adding on to your home, you probably know that you need a permit from the city. Here’s how it should work:
It sounds simple enough, but the process of getting your plans approved so you can start construction can be anything but simple. In fact, it can be downright overwhelming.
The first step in the process is to figure out the zoning requirements of the property in question. Zoning is the designated identification of a property or lot that determines the allowed use, maximum height, allowable area, required yards, and any other requirements specific to the property or lot. The type of occupancy, setbacks, height, and size limitations are all land-use issues covered by your local city planning code. You need to go to the city to get this information. (That’s your first trip.)
Once the land-use questions have been resolved, you will need to create complete construction plans for the project making sure you follow the rules in the building code. These include making sure the height of the structure does not exceed the code, that the structure itself is not too big and that it falls within appropriate setbacks.
These plans then need to be submitted to the city for approval. (This is your 2nd trip.) At this point, the city planner will check to ensure the plans are in compliance with the applicable city planning codes. If not, they will be returned to you with corrections. Once the corrections are made, you need to return to the city (3rd trip) to resubmit the plans. Again, they will be reviewed and checked against the planning code. In theory, you only have to do this once, but that rarely happens. I’ve seen some projects go through this process 10 times before getting city approval, each time requiring another trip to the city to work out issues with the various departments involved.
You don’t ever work with just one person at the city. At a minimum, you will need to work with people from the Planning department, the Engineering department and the Building department. Typically, you end up seeing a new person each time and more or less have to start from scratch with them before you can get to the next step. In my experience, most projects require at least 4-5 trips to the city before plans are approved. Most cities charge you an hourly rate for plan checking.
Once the plans are approved, a building permit can be issued and the construction phase of the project can begin.
But wait, there’s more. During construction, a city inspector will come out to make sure your structure is, indeed, following the code per the plans. More often than not, the inspector finds something that needs to be fixed. This puts a halt to your project until you fix the issue and have the inspector come out again to finish the inspection.
As you can see, starting any construction project means spending lots of time at the city. It’s a time consuming process and there’s a bit of a learning curve. Almost every time I go to the city I see someone who is stressed out and confused trying to get their plans approved. I often hear the city representative behind the counter saying something can’t be done when I know it can, or that something is against the code when I know it isn’t. As a licensed land surveyor, I am also qualified to do land planning and can help you navigate the murky waters of the permitting process. I will advocate for you an your behalf and streamline the process of getting your plans approved. This can save you time and money, and take the pain and stress out of the process.
In the state of California, there are a number of services that only a licensed Professional Surveyor is allowed to provide, specifically those related to the location of property boundaries. If you need a boundary survey, only a Professional Land Surveyor is qualified to stamp a boundary survey map and get it recorded with your local agency.
Professional Land Surveyors are educated in boundary law and are governed by the regulations outlined in the Professional Land Surveyor’s Act and the Rules of the Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. Essentially, these rules are designed to protect the public (you) and your property by defining the scope of practice and license requirements for professional land surveyors.
Unfortunately, not all surveyors follow the rules. In my experience, when talking with prospective clients there always seems to be someone willing to do the job for less. It seems that more and more surveyors are inclined to cut corners and violate the PLSA and/or the Board Rules in order to stay competitive, which can get them into trouble and put your property at risk. If you encounter a low bid for a boundary survey, beware.
In today’s litigious society, it’s critically important that your boundary survey is done by a Licensed Professional Surveyor and that they are following the rules governing Land Surveying in the state of California. Before hiring a surveyor, do your research. Click here to check if your land surveyor is licensed and in good standing with the Board.
Don’t let this happen to you
If the surveyor you hire violates the rules and files a map that is flawed or incomplete, your property may be deemed “unmarketable.” What constitutes a marketable title has been widely defined by the California courts. “Unmarketability” claims may be brought by an insured in many contexts, including:
Any of these can cause major headaches for a property owner, including project delays, the inability to sell or occupy your property and costly legal fees.
When hiring a land surveyor, it’s important to do your research. Every survey is unique to the individual property and the cost of a survey depends on many factors which can vary by dozens of project-specific details. A Professional Land Surveyor with the right experience and expertise can help you navigate the complicated process of determining your boundary. (See: 5 questions to ask a land surveyor before hiring them to survey your property.)
I’ve noticed recently when people call me to ask about a boundary survey that they are surprised when I tell them how much it costs. Often they say something like “I thought it would only cost $500.” It took me a while to figure out where they were getting this number. It turns out Google is giving quotes right on the search results page. If you search Google for “boundary survey cost” up pops a “featured snippet” that shows the national average cost of a survey is between $367 and $490. This result is pulled automatically from a website that Google guesses is an authority. Well, Google is wrong.
The website that posted this information is not from a land surveyor or land surveying firm. It’s a home improvement directory that connects homeowners with contractors in their area and offers free quotes for services. When you try to find a quote from a land surveyor, it comes back with “we are unable to find available Land Surveyors in your area.” So much for authority.
At least the site got this part right: “Several factors shape the final bill of a land survey. The cost of hiring a professional surveyor is not so straightforward as paying for routine repair work or other general home services. The price varies widely not only by locality and surveyor, but also by dozens of project-specific details. Even after analyzing over 2,000 land survey projects, the average price above may not be accurate for your parcel or area. That’s because there are plenty of factors that can increase or decrease your property survey cost”.
This is true, especially here in California. Here’s a general guideline I like to tell my clients:
If your property is valued at $700,000, a professional boundary survey that will result in a legal document describing the boundary of your property will generally cost less than 1% of the value of your asset.
Is that more than $500? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. A boundary survey protects the value of your home and property. (See: How much does a boundary survey cost?)
Google is a great tool and I love how it can empower consumers to do their own research to make better buying decisions. It’s unfortunate the information isn’t always accurate. Your best bet is to talk to a professional land surveyor in your area. They should ask questions about your property and your project before quoting you a price. Here are some resources that can help you:
There are a number of services that only a licensed Professional Surveyor is allowed to provide, specifically those related to the location of property boundaries. If you are adding on to your home or building a home from scratch, you will need the services of a licensed land surveyor if your local municipality requires a boundary survey. If your property line is in dispute, you will need a licensed land surveyor to determine the actual boundary of your property. In either case, only a Professional Land Surveyor is qualified to stamp a boundary survey map and get it recorded with your local agency.
Generating a map based on a boundary survey is a much more complicated process than just measuring your property. Before a survey crew steps foot on your property, a surveyor has conducted extensive research to find existing legal documents affecting the title of your property, the recorded maps and documents that created your property, and survey markers in the vicinity of your property. The survey is conducted by a crew made up of professionals who are educated in measurement and advanced math and who need to make complex calculations using sophisticated equipment. Once the survey is complete, a complex analysis of the field work is performed to ensure the quality of the data. A licensed land surveyor needs to check (and double check) every point before the map can be stamped and submitted to be recorded as a legal document. The stamp of a licensed land surveyor imparts their professional opinion about the location of your property boundary lines.
Why hire a Professional Land Surveyor?
A Professional Land Surveyor has gone to school, passed a 12-hour exam, has years of professional experience and is an expert in measurement and the legal aspects of boundaries. Also, a licensed land surveyor can help you navigate the complex process of getting your map approved and recorded. Finally, in case of a problem down the road, you will want to have someone you can call to back up the work you paid for and assist you in court, if necessary. Only a licensed land surveyor can be called as an expert witness in the event of a boundary dispute.
Photo credit: Schwede66 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
So, you’ve just been told you need to hire a land surveyor. Maybe you are building an addition to your property and your architect said you needed a land survey. Maybe you are in a boundary dispute with your neighbor and your lawyer told you to call a surveyor. Choosing the right surveyor for the job may seem like a daunting task especially if you don’t know what a surveyor does or what, exactly, a boundary survey even is. And, just picking the lowest bid could set you up for trouble down the road, especially if your property line is in dispute. To make things easier, we’ve compiled the top 5 questions you should ask a land surveyor to make sure you get the survey you need and avoid any unnecessary legal hassles.
1. Are you licensed in my state?
It is important to make sure the work is being done by a licensed Professional Land Surveyor. A Professional Land Surveyor has gone to school, passed a 12-hour exam, has years of professional experience and is an expert in measurement and boundary law. You will want to make sure they are licensed in your state to ensure they are familiar with boundary law in your area. Also, a licensed land surveyor can help you navigate the complex process of getting your map approved and recorded. Finally, in case of a problem down the road, you will want to have someone you can call to back up the work you paid for and assist you in court, if necessary. Only a licensed land surveyor can be called as an expert witness in the event of a boundary dispute.
You should always request confirmation of licensing credentials when hiring a Professional Surveyor. Only those licensed in the state in which services are to be performed are allowed to legally provide the services defined in the licensing laws found in that state’s Statutes and Regulations. Click here for more information about a surveyor’s professional qualifications.
2. Is your crew educated and experienced in boundary surveys?
Each project is different, so crews with education and experience in measurement can easily solve issues on the fly in the field which could save you money. Crews with experience know what to look for in terms of finding survey markers, boundary evidence and know how to manage complex issues in the field.
3. How long have you been doing this work?
Experience is key to minimizing risk and avoiding costly errors. Every survey is unique to the property and environmental factors surrounding the property. Each survey performed adds to the knowledge base of the surveyor. A surveyor must combine the science of measurement with the art of interpreting history and have a clear understanding of boundary law and the legal aspects of boundary surveying.
4. What will I get as a result of the work you will be doing?
At the end of any boundary survey, the deliverable will be a record of survey map that has been reviewed, signed and approved by the county surveyor and recorded at the county recorder’s office. This is important, as some companies will say they are providing a boundary survey but do not, in fact, record the document with the county which does not provide you with a legal document that will hold up in court if there is a dispute. Be sure to ask any surveyor if they will be around later to support you if there is trouble further down the road.
5. Will the results accurately define my boundary?
It seems like you shouldn’t even have to ask this question, but not all survey products are equal. After the field work is performed, a licensed land surveyor should run the field data through a statistical analysis program which will guarantee the measurement results fall within the guidelines for boundary survey set forth by the American Land Title Association and the National Society for Professional Surveyors. If your surveyor doesn’t provide this service you should find someone who does.