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What is an ALTA Survey?

If you are buying land for development, then you will probably be told at some point that you need an ALTA survey. Specifically, you will need one to get the loan to purchase or develop your property.

So, what is an ALTA survey, why do you need one, and what are the typical requirements?

What is an ALTA Survey?

In this context, ALTA stands for the American Land Title Association, which is a national trade association of title insurers. At the basic level, then an ALTA survey is a land survey that satisfies the requirements of the association, and thus of accredited title insurers. The requirements are developed along with the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping or the National Society of Professional Surveyors. You may, thus, see them listed as ALTA/ACSM or ALTA/NSPS. There is little meaningful difference.

The purpose of the survey is to establish as solidly as possible that you own the land, what land you own, and what the boundaries are. It also includes things such as rights of way, waterways, access points from adjourning properties, etc.

Why Do You Need an ALTA Survey?

American land tenure systems are such that there aren’t great ways to prove who owns a piece of land. Deeds are records of sale but only go so far. An ALTA survey, thus, stands as a higher level of proof. The surveyors gather all of the records to establish the history of the property, do fieldwork to define its exact boundaries, and mark walls, fences, and other boundary improvements. They use this data to create a plat or map to illustrate the property.

This means that any lenders can be confident you do, indeed, own the property concerned, and know exactly what property you own. When you take a loan out against the property, lenders need to know that if you foreclose, there will be no argument or other “owners” coming out of the woodwork. Because of this, you will need an ALTA survey before buying the land or taking out a development loan on it. Some lenders may be satisfied with a boundary survey, but an ALTA survey is always better and will include any details they might ask for.

These surveys can sometimes take weeks or months but are often worth it as they can avoid future legal issues, such as arguments about whether a wall, fence, or tree encroaches on a neighbor’s land.

What are the Minimum Requirements?

The NSPS updated its minimum standard detail requirements for ALTA/NSPS surveys on February 23, 2021. These updates included clarifying revisions, improvements in measurement accuracy, but also a goal of actually narrowing the survey to keep it within the bounds of what is necessary. For example, the surveyor is only required to include survey-related matters affecting the title and doesn’t have to include things in general mineral rights.

Things that do need to be included are extensive, but some key requirements include the location of all buildings that might be affected by a setback, the location, and width of all rights of way and easements, the location of all water features within five feet of the boundary or which form the boundaries. Oh, the presence of graves. These are requirements for all ALTA surveys, and the full list can be found on the NSPS site linked above. It might seem to be ridiculously comprehensive, but it can help you understand the land you have and its limitations, making planning easier as well as supporting your property rights and ability to get a loan.

What is Table A?

In addition to the standard minimum requirements, the ALTA requirements contain Table A, which is a list of optional additions. There are 19 Table A items, of which the title insurer may request all, some, or none. They are:

  • Monuments or markers at corners of the surveyed property. If there are no markers at the corners, then this obliges the surveyor to place them.
  • The property’s address
  • Flood zone classification
  • Gross land area (and potentially other land areas).
  • Vertical relief
  • Current zoning classification, setback requirements, parking requirements, etc.
  • Exterior dimensions of all buildings at ground level and their height above grade.
  • Substantial features such as parking lots, swimming pools, billboards, etc.
  • The number and type of parking spaces
  • Division or party walls for adjoining properties
  • Evidence of underground utilities
  • Governmental agency requirements if relevant.
  • Names of adjoining owners.
  • Distance to the nearest intersecting street
  • Any remote sensing, laser scanning, or similar.
  • Evidence of recent construction, additions, or earth moving.
  • Any proposed changes in the street right-of-way lines.
  • Plottable offsite easements.
  • The surveyor’s insurance details.

Your title company will tell you which of these they need, and it can depend on circumstances. For example, if your property is in a flood plain, then you are likely to be required to supply the flood zone classification, whilst if it’s in the mountains then this is obviously relevant. Zoning classification is also more relevant for some properties, such as those in a city, than others, and is also required if you want a Zoning Endorsement to prove that you can use the land in the way you intend. However, many title insurers will request the surveyor’s insurance details. Most lenders don’t care about monuments, but they can make further surveys easier and may be a good idea. Vertical relief is very rarely asked for as it’s expensive and gives little benefit.

You should consider which of these items might be useful to you as well as those required by the title insurer or your lender. There is also an “item 20,” which is a space for anything you or your lender might want which isn’t covered.

Getting an ALTA survey done is essential if you are taking out a development or construction loan. It can also help you avoid legal issues in the future by ensuring that you know exactly where your boundaries are, reducing conflict with neighbors. It’s thus a good idea to get one done even if you don’t need a loan or aren’t planning on getting one right away.