Most investors in commercial projects consisting of something built on real estate will, at some point, require an ALTA Land Title Survey, ALTA Survey for short. This might be something as simple as a billboard sign or storage units, and as complicated as a shopping center or solar farm. First, let’s review the definition of an ALTA Survey.
What is an ALTA Land Title Survey?
An ALTA Survey is a property survey done according to a set of standards called the “Minimum Standard Detail Requirements and Accuracy Standards for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys.” This ALTA survey standards document was developed, and is revised on a regular basis, by a combination of two industry organizations – the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).
The document is a National standard, meaning it is used by Title Insurance companies, lending agencies, attorneys, and land surveyors all over the country, in order to maintain a uniform way of completing and reporting on the results of the survey of any land project of interest.
An ALTA Survey is performed uniformly, according to those standards, and the report of the survey (or drawing) can be reviewed and commented on by all the interested parties because of their familiarity with those same standards.
The ALTA Land Survey also ties the Title Commitment Exceptions to the property, and addresses those exceptions which the land owner would like to be covered by the Title Insurance Policy.
What is Included in an ALTA Survey?
Again, since the Standards are used, the items included in the ALTA survey are consistent. The included items are:
- Field work is completed according to the Surveying Standards
- Boundary Resolution according to appropriate boundary law principles
- Measurement are made according to set precision standards, depending on the size of the property
- Comprehensive records research is done before, or during, the field survey
- Actual Fieldwork is performed, which locates monuments, rights of way, lines of possession, improvements near the boundary, buildings, easements, cemeteries, and water features.
- A map or drawing is completed showing all of the items located during the field work, and showing any discrepancies between what was found and the record documents.
- The drawing will show the monuments found, legal descriptions, dimensions, the survey closure, easement locations, distance to rights of way, access easements, servitudes, recorded documents consulted, and an exceptions list.
- Certification by the Surveyor to the interested parties that it was done according to the current ALTA standards
- The survey will also contain other “Table A Items” that were selected when the work was ordered. This is discussed below in more detail.
The inclusion of these standard items affect the pricing in some areas more than others. For example, if a local surveying standard requires similar standards to be used, then the price for an ALTA survey will be somewhat similar in price to a local standard survey. However, if the ALTA Standards are much more stringent than those local standards, the surveyor will likely charge a good bit more for the ALTA Survey standards to be used.
Some local standards or laws may also add other items not covered by the ALTA standards which will cause the price to be higher. For example, in some states, like California and Texas, any time a new survey monument is set, a record of that monument must be submitted to document it for future surveyors. This adds significant time and effort for the surveyor, thus increasing the cost of the survey in those states.
What are ALTA Table A Items?
Table A Items are shown in the back of the ALTA Survey Standards document under Table A. There are 20 pre-written items that may be chosen by the person contracting the work. These items have varying effect on the price of the survey. Depending on what time and effort they add to the survey, the costs will be added likewise. Discuss these Table A items with your lender, title agent, attorney, and your surveyor. Make sure you choose only the items that are needed for the project.
How Do ALTA Table A Items Affect the Cost?
I will review here each of the Table A items in regard to its effect on the cost of the ALTA survey.
Item 1 – Monuments – This item is typically required on all surveys by the state or local standards of practice. However, it can be left off in those states that require monument records, in order to cut the cost. But, as a land surveyor, I always recommend that this item is checked.
Item 2 – Address – The address of a parcel is usually fairly easy to obtain and report, so the cost is negligible.
Item 3 – Flood Zone – Obtaining the exact base flood elevation (BFE) which determines in which flood zone the property is located, takes some additional time in the field. If the BFE is given on the flood maps in that area, a survey shot must be taken on each corner of the building to compare it to the BFE. If no BFE is given, designated Zone A, the process is somewhat more lengthy. This item should be discussed in advance to make sure it is needed.
Item 4 – Gross Land Area – The area calculation is a simple calculation, so this requires little extra time.
Item 5 – Vertical Relief – Providing a topographic survey of a parcel of property takes significantly more time than the property boundary survey. This will also add significant time and costs to the survey. A topo survey is usually not needed unless development, or redevelopment of the parcel is planned. Again, discuss your plans for the property with the land surveyor and determine if this is needed. There might also be some existing topo information available from local sources. Usually these are completed with aerial surveying methods and will typically not be more precise than 2-foot contours.
Item 6(a) – Zoning Classification – If the Zoning Report or Letter is supplied to the surveyor, this is merely make notes on the survey drawing.
Item 6(b) – Zoning Setback – Again, if this is supplied to the surveyor, it can be easily noted on the survey drawing. If these items are not supplied, and the surveyor must get this information, it will add some time, effort, and cost to the survey.
Item 7(a) – Exterior Building Dimensions – This requires the precise location of each building corner. Depending on the number of buildings and the footprint of each, this could add some time to the survey. It will also add a corresponding amount of time on the drawing.
Item 7(b) – Building Square Footage – If Item 7(a) is selected, this is an easy calculation for each building.
Item 7(c) – Building Height – With today’s instruments and knowledge in how to do this process, this should be a rather easy step. There are sometimes two different heights that need to be considered – eave height and peak height. City ordinances may have property line setbacks that consider the eave, or drip line height of the building. If so, this should be measured. Also, some city ordinances have a maximum height of buildings that can be built. If this is the case, the peak of the roof will need to be measured.
Item 8 – Substantial Other Features – Lots of sites have parking lots, signs, curbing, etc. If this is selected, those items must also be located and shown on the survey drawing. Again, more time, more money.
Item 9 – Parking Spaces – Again, city ordinances usually require a certain number of parking spaces for a particular use. If the planned use of the site is dependent on parking, this should be checked. In some cases, the number of parking spaces is sufficient, so each space doesn’t have to be precisely located. But, they should be shown on the drawing as closely as possible. Some surveyors are adding an aerial image of the site by using a drone on the job. This represents parking lots very well.
Item 10(a) – Walls – Any retaining wall that is near the property lines should be shown already, in my opinion, but this may be additional work in some cases. A cursory review of the parcel of land could let you know the need for this item.
Item 10(b) – Walls Plumb? – This item will require the surveyor to take measurements on the top and bottom of any wall in order to determine if it is plumb or not. If a wall is not plumb a Structural Engineer should be consulted to determine if there is any risk of wall failure.
Item 11 – Utilities Serving Property – This item often involves the surveyor asking for all utilities to be marked near the property. Most 811 (One-Call) services won’t mark utilities much inside the property boundary. So, this may require a private utility location company to be used. This will add to the cost of the survey.
Item 12 – Additional Governmental Agency Requirements (ie HUD, etc) – The added cost for these items are depending on what all is required. This should be reviewed in detail before the survey is begun.
Item 13 – Adjoining Owners – This item requires research of the tax records. Lots of times these are online, but sometimes it will involve an additional trip to the courthouse.
Item 14 – Nearest Intersection – Most times this will only take an additional survey shot and can be shown fairly simply.
Item 15 – Aerial Imaging – This item can be as simple as showing a Google Map image (rectified with some identifiable points) or as complicated as having an aerial survey completed. This will add costs to the survey, depending on the type of effort that is expended. The general intent of this item seems to be to show items WITHIN the boundary of the property with just an aerial photo, and to eliminate having to precisely survey each item. This could reduce the cost of a survey, if for example, drone images are captured to the extent necessary to yield an orthometric image of the site. Again, the methodologies and precision needed should be discussed in detail before the survey is begun.
Item 16 – Evidence of Recent Work – I’d say that this should be checked on all surveys. If the surveyor sees something like this, he may be the only person to look at the property before the closing. So, some notice from him will be helpful to the whole proceeding. But, don’t count on the surveyor to know exactly how this type work will affect the use of the property. You may need to consult an Engineer or Attorney for this.
Item 17 – Proposed Changes – This should be addressed in the Zoning Request, or in a separate Request to the City or County Engineer. Evidence of any work could be checked fairly easily, but finding out about planned work will involve more time and cost.
Item 18 – Wetlands – If there have been wetlands identified on the property, AND if they have been located by a “qualified specialist hired by the client,” the surveyor should be able to locate and show these on the map. Depending on the extent of wetlands, and the vegetation, this could add significantly to the time on the survey.
Item 19 – Offsite Easements – Utilities that are connected off-site through easements should be located to insure that easements cover the actual location of the utility. This is true for any underground utility like sanitary sewers, water lines, power, cable, etc. This will also add costs to the survey.
Item 20 – Professional Liability Insurance – If this is required, it will definitely add to the cost of the survey. From my 30 years experience, most local surveyors don’t carry Professional Liability Insurance, also known as Errors & Omissions Insurance. The major reason for this is that it invites lawsuits. But, if this is necessary for the project, it can be requested. In some cases a surveyor may be able to add a policy for that particular project. OR, they may already have E&O Insurance but just not advertise it widely.
Other Items may also be added to this list of twenty. If so, they could add to the cost of the survey.
What Things Are Important in Pricing an ALTA Survey?
Most surveyors price their work according to the time and effort that is needed to complete the work. We also may price the work according to its worth, or the risk that we will be assuming. Some basic things that affect the price of the survey are:
- Size of the property
- Vegetation on the property, especially along the boundary lines
- Boundaries located along water, streams, lakes, or oceans
- Time of the year, or temperature and weather conditions
- Terrain of the property
- Type of Legal Description
- Age of Deed and other recorded documents
- Required schedule for the completion of the work
Ideas to Reduce the Cost of an ALTA Survey
You may be able to reduce the cost of an ALTA survey if you work with your surveyor and give them plenty of time to get the job done. A rushed job will always cost more. Likewise, giving the surveyor plenty of time should reduce the cost of the work. So, some things that you can do to help yourself are:
- Get the title work completed before ordering the survey.
- Order the survey as early in the process as possible.
- Eliminate unnecessary Table A Items.
- If it is possible, get the site bush hogged before the surveyor begins. This is extremely important if drone surveying will be used.
- Try to find an old survey to give to the current surveyor – you might also try to contact the old surveyor to see what the cost to update the ALTA survey would be.