Survey says: Why you need one

By Eric King, ASLA, owns King Landscaping, a design/build/educate landscaping company in metro Atlanta.

Eric King

A property survey is one of the most important documents a homeowner should possess. It’s a visual description of your property that shows property lines, the home itself, and any hardscape areas like a driveway or sidewalk. It’s also one of the first things I’ll request when developing a landscape design.

For new hardscape construction: Whether you do it yourself or hire a contractor, you will need a permit for most hardscaping projects, including. patios, arbors and built-in grills. If you don't get a permit and someone reports you, you could be subject to a fine and removal of the structure.

Know what's yours: Even if you're not planning to do a landscape plan, I think it's important to have a survey to ensure that things are where you think they are. Fences, driveways and hardscapes are not legal demarcations of property lines. Sometimes a neighbor might have encroached on your property over time or vice versa.

Know what you're buying: Never buy a home without getting a survey, either provided by the seller or ordered by the buyer. Although there is a legal description of the property in the closing documents, it's not the same as seeing it drawn on paper. Too many times I have been in the uncomfortable position of explaining to homeowners that their yard is not as big as they were led to believe.

Know what's below: A survey also shows underground easements that you might not know about. This might be a sewer easement, a storm water easement or an access easement. If you unwittingly build a patio on top of an easement and the local municipality needs to repair an underground pipe, its employees have the right to tear down your patio to access the pipe. Knowing that an easement exists influences my landscape design.

What to ask for: Get a typical boundary survey that shows building setback lines on all four sides of the property. Also break down all of the impervious surface elements on the plan. These are elements that obstruct water from flowing directly into the ground. This includes your driveway, patio, air conditioning units and house. If you plan to do any additional work, it's important to know how much land is currently impervious. Every jurisdiction within Atlanta requires homeowners not to exceed a certain threshold of impervious surface area.

If you’re planning a future landscape or hardscape renovation, ask the surveying company to show any trees and their caliber size on the plan. I typically have them show any tree six inches or greater in diameter.

You also can request an optional topographical survey that shows contour lines and any elevation change across the property. You’ll only need that if you’re planning to do any changes in grading or retaining walls that you’ll need to show changes to the contour plans.

Price range: Surveys can cost from $350 to $1,000 for everything except the topographical survey. If you have an older survey, request a price from that company. Or you can request estimates from three surveying companies you found online who have good customer reviews. Design/build landscaping firms also can subcontract the work and add the cost into the total project cost. This option might save you time and effort.