How to Read Land Survey Plats

By Ellen Beth Gill

A land survey plat is a map depicting characteristics of the land and their relative positions. A surveyor uses measurement techniques and tools to translate legal technical documents describing the land into positions on the ground. The information found on a survey depends on its type and intended use. American Land Title Association (ALTA) surveys locate property lines, improvements, easements and utilities. Boundary surveys depict property lines and corners and are used to obtain building permits or resolve property line disputes. Learning how to read a survey helps you better understand the characteristics of and various legal rights to the land.

Orienting Yourself on the Land Survey Plat

Review a copy of a land transfer document and a copy of the title insurance commitment or policy. These documents provide the legal description of the land and a description of any third party rights in the land that should be depicted on the survey, such as encroachments, utility easements or other easements granting a third party use of the entire land or a portion of it.

Determine the type of the survey to understand the information you can expect to find on it. The type of survey should be stated in the title and the surveyor's certification.

Find the survey legend. The legend will orient you as to direction and explain the various symbols used on the survey. Symbols depict corners, contours, improvements, streets, waters, vegetation, utility facilities and other land characteristics.

Note the surveyor's scale. The scale depicts the relationship between distance on the survey and the distances on the ground. You can use the scale along with a ruler to determine the distances between the various land characteristics.

Note the surrounding land depicted in the survey. The survey often shows adjoining land, including improvements, utilities and easements that might affect legal rights to the subject land.

Determine whether the land is described as a subdivision lot or by metes and bounds. If the land has been subdivided, it will be described as a lot number in the named subdivision. If the land is not subdivided, it will be described by metes and bounds, calls described in direction, degree angle or curve, and length from a point of beginning.

Reading the Land Survey Plat

Find the point of beginning if the land is described by metes and bounds. The point of beginning shows the location where the metes and bounds legal description of the land begins.

Run the legal description if the land is described by metes and bounds. Using the legal description found in a document of transfer or title insurance commitment or policy, locate the boundary lines of the land, including all angles and curves.

Make sure that the legal description closes if the land is described by metes and bounds. A legal description closes when the ending point is the same point as the point of beginning.

Look at each boundary line and the land around it to locate any borderline easements that may have been created by the plat of subdivision if the land is subdivided.

Locate all utilities, easements and other indications of potentially adverse property rights in the land. Certain types of surveys will locate existing utility lines and areas subject to a legal right of a nonowner to use the land that are also shown on a policy or commitment of title insurance. One common type of easement called an "easement for ingress and egress" is the right to enter and leave the property or a portion of the property.

Locate the improvements on the land or on adjoining land and the distances between the improvements and boundaries, utilities and easements. Encroachments of improvements onto easements or over boundaries may indicate potential legal disputes or adverse rights to the land.

Locate natural conditions on the land, such as waters, minerals, vegetation or topography. Natural conditions on the land may affect plans for future land use, grading and construction of improvements.

About the Author

Ellen Beth Gill has been an attorney for 25 years. She does extensive legal research and writes about new legislation, policy changing cases and the economy. Gill has been writing an often humorous political blog since February 2005 and had a story posted on Huffington Post.