Locating your property lines is very important before starting any project like installing a fence or removing a tree. This guide will help you just do that.
I’ve put together a bunch of methods that will help you locate your property lines. Some are more accurate than others. Some are cheap and some are expensive.
I’ve also answered some of the frequently asked questions about this subject. I hope you find this guide helpful.
Why do you have to locate them?
You need to locate your property lines before installing a fence, building a new house, shed, widening your driveway… This is necessary to avoid disputes with your neighbors. Building something on the wrong lot will cost you a lot to repair.
The limits of your property are not as clear as you think. The grass you mow, your neighbor’s fence, or your driveway… aren’t what defines your property boundaries. You have to locate the property pins.
How to find property lines?
Property lines are the lines joining the property markers. There is a marker at every corner of your lot. A marker is simply an iron rod. It is two to three feet long and it can be covered with a plastic cap. When your parcel was first surveyed, these caps were at ground level. However, over time they were covered with dirt. In the following paragraphs, I’ll show you how you can find them easily.
Check the plat map
One of the documents that you may receive after purchasing a house is the plat map. It will show you the boundaries of your properties, the neighboring houses, streets, symbol legend, Easements…
Plat maps are created by a civil engineer and they are approved by the county planning department when a parcel of land is to subdivided into lots. Therefore, they are pretty accurate. But it can be difficult to read for non-specialists.
The map will show you the south, north, east, and west orientations and the shape of the land. In the middle of the lot, you’ll find the parcel number. It is underlined and in a bold typeface. The dimensions of the parcel will be alongside the property lines.
You can also refer to the survey plan (plat maps and survey plans are slightly different although many use these two terms interchangeably)
Both of them show the location, the dimensions, and the limits of the property. The survey contains more details. It will show you the fence, the driveway, the buildings…
A survey looks a little bit daunting because it contains too many details. This video will help you decipher it. Your survey doesn’t have to look exactly the same.
The plat will show you the entire subdivision; the survey will focus only on your parcel of land. Surveys are for personal use while plats are for public use.
Use a metal detector
As I previously said, Property markers will be buried under inches of dirt. Since they are metal rods, they can be located with a metal detector up to 12” deep (the depth can be greater or smaller depending on many factors).
Use the plat maps to guide you to the general location of the marker. Then use the metal detector. You will hear a beep if the search coil detects something. This something isn’t necessarily the marker you are looking for. It could be a coin or a nail.
The detector will beep whenever it detects a metal regardless of its nature. Since you have narrowed down the search area using the plat map, the target will be most likely the property pin. It is digging time.
However, you should be careful not damaging utility lines that can be buried nearby. Solving this problem is very easy. Call 811 they will come within a few days. They will mark utility lines for FREE so that you can dig safely.
Remember this service is free and available all over the US and damaging utility lines costs a lot of money to repair.
Check the deed
On the deed, you’ll find a few information about your lot. It can tell you about its location on the plat map based on some reference points.
In the metes and bounds survey, there is a starting point in one of the property’s corners. You’ll get detailed instructions to get to the other ones. You can use them to map your property boundaries from the deed.
This method isn’t very accurate. It is difficult to tell where the markers are, based on a simple description. A map will be much more helpful. As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words“.
Are property lines available online?
This information is public records. This means that it is accessible to anyone. You can find it in the county assessor office.
Some counties created online property maps. They are accessible to anyone with a few clicks. They are easy to use and similar to google maps. Simply google the county assessor and you’ll find their website.
Websites are different from county to county. There could be a search bar where you enter the address or any other information about the property. Or you can find a map, you just click on the parcel of land and the assessment details will pop up. If your county doesn’t provide this service, you can use Zillow.
These online tools will help you determine the approximate location of the property lines. These maps rely on the geographic information system (GIS). They are accurate but they are not perfect. You still need to locate the pins manually.
Google maps and Google earth no longer show property lines. Some websites may offer you paid services to reactivate this feature. You don’t need none of that. The county’s website is more than enough and it is for free.
Is there an app for finding property markers?
There is an app called LandGlide available for IOS and Android. Hover over a property and it will display its ID, lines, owner name…
You can save this info and use it offline. You get a 7-day free trial. Then you can buy a monthly or yearly subscription.
I think this app is useless. You can get the same information for free from the websites that I already mentioned.
Second, This app claims that it uses GPS to pinpoint the user’s location. This feature is also useless. You want to locate the property lines not your location.
In addition to that, pinpointing property lines using GPS is technically not feasible. The GPS in your smartphones is accurate within 16 feet (5 meters). This accuracy gets worse if you are near a building or a tree. 16 feet is a lot. You want to locate the property lines accurately.
Hire a surveyor
If everything fails and you couldn’t locate the lines of your property, it’s time to hire a surveyor. He has the tools and the knowledge to do this job. He will mark the pins for you with wooden stakes or small flags.
Not everybody can become a surveyor. Tell him to show you his credentials. He should be licensed with the state. He should also have insurance. The latter is useful in the case of an error.
The duration of the survey depends on the location. If the parcel has a few trees, the surveyor can finish his task in less than one hour, typically 30 to 45 minutes. If there are many old big trees, It can take up to three hours to survey a half an acre.
The surveying company needs one or two weeks to prepare the documents. They will be valid for 5 to 10 years after completion.
How much does a survey cost?
The cost of the survey depends on many factors like the surface of the property, the complexity of the survey, the distance the surveyor has to travel to get to the property… On Average, it costs 500 $.
The age of the property affects the cost of the survey. As time goes by, the ground will shift slightly and reference points marked on the initial documentation may disappear. This makes the task more difficult and consequently more expensive.
Trees make the survey more complex. Flat clear lots are easy to work with and they don’t cost that much.
The cost will also increase depending on how many markers should be placed. If the lines are complex more markers should be planted.
The surveyor needs to look for the property’s document to compare them against reality. The longer it takes to find these documents, the more money you are going to pay. So make sure they are within reach.
Can you locate them with a compass?
This method only works if the property has been surveyed and the stakes left by the surveyor are still visible.
The compass is only helpful if your property is large (more than a couple of hundred feet). It is not a tool for locating the pins. It is a tool to navigate between the pins once at least one of them is found.
The north direction is shown on the survey map. You can measure the angle between this direction and the property line. Then use the compass to walk from one pin to the next.
Can you find your property lines with GPS?
Using the GPS can tell you roughly, where the property pins are located. Regular consumer GPS devices are not accurate enough to determine the exact location of the lines.
The search area will be a few feet large. The accuracy depends on many factors such as the quality of the unit, atmospheric conditions, and signal blockage.
These devices are cool for outdoor activities but they are not accurate enough for this application.
After knowing the approximate location of the markers, you can use a metal detector to pinpoint them.
Visit the website of your local county assessor and use their online map tool. You will find your property lines. Then type in your address in google maps and click on the corners of your property.
You will find two long numbers. These are the GPS coordinates that you are looking for. Enter them into the GPS. This will help you get a rough idea of where the pins are.
Use a measuring tape
Start by locating the property line parallel to the road. It should be 33’ away from the center of the street. A better option is to start measuring from the curb. The line should be 14 to 14.5 feet away from the curb.
Once you find the first marker, finding the rest will be easier. On the survey plan, you will find the distance between two consecutive pins. Use the measuring tape to find all of them one by one.
Ask your neighbors
If your neighbor knows where his property pins are located, you can use this info as a reference to locate yours based on the plat map (the lines are shared).
It is also a good opportunity to make sure you both agree on the current perimeters and to discuss your future projects.
If you are going to install a fence, it is a good idea to discuss its location. If it will be along the line, maybe he can share the cost with you.
Other less reliable methods
The two following methods are not reliable. They are only guidelines to help you locate the property lines.
The fence (privacy trees, shrubs, hedges…) can be a good reference point. They can be directly the property lines or a few inches away from it.
Sidewalks can be used to locate the line parallel to the street. In many cities, the owner is the one who has to build the sidewalk.
The cut lines may coincide with the edges of your property. Moreover, the color of the concrete may be different from that of your neighbors.
Beware of removed pins!
Property pins are nothing more than a metal rod. They can be removed and thrown away easily whether intentionally or not (crazy neighbor or tree removal for example).
Sometimes, the pins were removed and reinserted in a different location. You can check that by measuring the distance between the pins. In this case, only a certified surveyor can help you fix this problem.