Toolbox Essentials: Q1 2022 Catalog
Property Lines – How to Find Them & Why They Matter

Property Lines – How to Find Them & Why They Matter

If you own a home—or you’ve found a piece of property you’re thinking about buying—you probably have some idea where the plot starts and ends. Chances are you can’t identify the precise boundaries, however, without doing a little digging first. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to find property lines with relative ease so homeowners, developers, and contractors can proceed on any given project with confidence.

What Are Property Lines?

Property lines, or what are sometimes called “boundary lines,” detail the exact borders of a plot of land. Without property lines in place, it would be impossible to determine who owns what. Such information is always good to know when a property changes hands, and it’s vital when developing land or expanding existing structures on it.

Why Do I Need to Know My Property’s Precise Boundaries?

Failing to confirm property lines could lead to a host of issues, some of which carrying costly—and perhaps even legal—consequences. Identifying your property’s boundaries will eliminate any confusion as to where your land ends and your neighbor’s begins.

Here are some of the most common scenarios in which you’ll need to locate a plot’s precise borders:

  • You’re purchasing the property and the mortgage lender and title insurer need to evaluate the boundary lines before drafting the terms of their agreements with you
  • You’re planning on dividing the plot and selling off the resulting parcels individually
  • You’re planning on erecting or replacing a fence
  • Your neighbor is planning on erecting or replacing a fence
  • You’re planning on building an addition and you need to confirm it meets all required setbacks
  • You’re planning on erecting a new structure, like a barn, shed, or carport, and you need to confirm it meets all required setbacks
  • You need to locate utility easements
  • You need to settle a boundary dispute with a neighbor

How Can I Find Property Lines?

There are a number of ways to find property lines. If you need to confirm the boundaries for a particular piece of land, the best approach will depend on a variety of factors, like whether the plot is on platted land and if it was ever parceled into smaller sections through official—or unofficial—means.

Naturally, any existing or potential complications will also influence how you should proceed. A property can be difficult to define, for example, if:

  • It has changed hands in unorthodox ways
  • There are unresolved boundary disputes
  • Neighbors are unknowingly encroaching on the property
  • Critical markers, like roads or fences, have been relocated or eliminated entirely
  • There are confusing or contradictory easements and/or ecological restrictions

Thankfully, even if you’re facing any of the issues above, there are ways to resolve them with help from seasoned professionals, like land surveyors and real estate attorneys.

When you’re ready to confirm the property lines, you can try one or more of the following strategies.
close-up of three architects looking at blueprints

Reviewing the Plat

A plat is a property line map that details the boundaries of a town, neighborhood, subdivision, or street. Using aerial views, such documents depict the dimensions for every individual plot that the map contains, as well as the precise location of existing structures, bodies of water, and other relevant features.

If the property you need defined happens to be on platted land, you should be able to obtain a copy of the map from the local assessor’s office. Your property has likely been platted if it’s described using subdivision numbers on the deed.

If the deed uses geographical features to reference the shape and size of the lot, on the other hand, the property hasn’t been platted. As long as this description, or the “metes and bounds,” still exist, though, you may be able to use it to confirm the precise property lines, which brings us to the next approach.

Checking the Deed

In real estate transactions, the deed is the physical document that actually transfers ownership of the property from the seller to the buyer. For recording purposes, it needs to include a detailed description of the lot’s boundaries.

If the most recent deed for the property does not include said description, it should refer you to an older deed that does. As long as this document references landmarks and geographical features that still exist, the description should suffice. If the metes and bounds are outdated, however, you’ll have to find the property lines another way.

Locating Markers or Hidden Pins

When building subdivisions, developers often insert stakes in the ground to mark each lot’s boundaries. If the property you need defined is relatively new, these markers may still be in place. Walk around the plot’s perimeter and look for stakes, especially where you suspect the corners of the lot are supposed to be.

If you have a metal detector, you can also look for survey pins. Comprised of iron, these bars are two to three feet long, and they’re typically capped with plastic. If the land has ever been surveyed, the original crew should have buried these pins along the borders of the property.

Should you locate any survey pins, though, make sure to call 811 before digging them up. They will connect you with your local utility company. Let the representative know where you’re planning on digging and and ask if they need to send out someone to mark off any buried lines. They will do so free of charge, so you don’t have to worry about striking one while you work (and then covering the cost of repairs).

Once you do start digging, keep in mind that you should confirm any found survey pins with the plat map or deed. Utility workers, tree removal companies, and/or prior owners may have dug up the pins and moved them at some point for their own purposes.

Conducting a Land Survey

If the above approaches prove unsuccessful, conducting a land survey may be the only way to confirm the property lines with certainty. Such services typically start at a few hundred dollars, but depending on the size of the lot in question, they can be as much as $1,000 or more; however, the report the survey yields will provide the peace of mind needed to proceed with your project.

After reviewing the plot’s history, a land surveyor can come out and define the precise borders using special tools like drones, subsurface locators, theodolites, GNSS receivers, and 3D scanners.
two men in yellow vests and white hard hats surveying an empty lot

What if I Find Myself in a Boundary Dispute With a Neighbor?

If the property lines reveal that your neighbor’s fence is encroaching on your lot—or your shed is encroaching on theirs—you have a boundary dispute. Of course, whether this dispute is actually contentious will depend on both your mindset and that of your neighbor. Regardless, you’ll want to resolve it as soon as possible.

Failing to address a boundary dispute once you’re made aware of it will only lead to more hassle down the road. Not only will an unresolved dispute make it harder to sell the property, but it could also end with you losing a portion of your land through a legal doctrine called “adverse possession.”

Under this doctrine, the specifics of which vary by state, a trespasser can acquire title to property if they meet certain conditions. Generally speaking, the trespasser’s possession must be both blatantly open and continuously ongoing for a certain number of years. For example, if your neighbor builds a fence that actually extends three feet onto your property, they may be able to claim ownership of that portion of land after the applicable time period has passed—unless you assert your rights as owner sooner.

There are a number of ways to resolve boundary disputes, and the best approach for any given situation will ultimately depend on the facts of the case. It might be possible to simply remove the offending landscaping feature or structure, for example. Or, the owners might come to a compromise and either adjust the boundary lines or enter into an agreement that grants the encroacher the use of the land.

Boundary line adjustments and agreements highlight the importance of reviewing a property’s history when trying to locate its borders. You may not have entered into any contracts with your neighbors, but if the prior owner did, you can be sure it will influence the lot’s lines.

The Bottom Line

If you own real estate—or you ever plan on buying some—you can be sure you’ll have to determine property lines at some point. While doing so might feel like a chore, it’s actually fairly straightforward, and turning to the right professionals for help can streamline the process further.