Content of the material
- What Are Property Lines?
- Consider the Metes and Bounds Survey
- Final Thoughts
- What Are Boundary Line Agreements?
- How to Find Property Lines for Free
- Homeowner’s Deed
- A Tape Measure
- Existing Property Survey from Mortgage or Title Company
- Existing Property Survey from County or Local Municipality
- Buried Pins
- Use an App
- Can My Neighbor Build A Fence On The Property Line?
- Why is it important to know the location of your property lines?
- How Property Lines Are Calculated
- The Bottom Line
What Are Property Lines?
Put simply, a property line is a legal boundary for a piece of land that distinguishes it from other pieces. In legal terms, property lines very distinctly denote who owns which pieces of land by dividing land cleanly into parcels or plots. In some cases, property lines follow very obvious boundaries, including fences, roads, ditches, streams and rivers. But in other cases, property lines can be totally invisible. In these situations, certified legal records of property lines may be the only proof that the property lines are legitimate. For these reasons, you must understand where your property begins and ends if you are a homeowner. In doing so, you can determine exactly what kinds of home improvement projects you can undertake without encroaching on your neighbor’s property and avoid unpleasant legal disputes. In addition, you may need to have official records of your property lines if you want or need title insurance.
Consider the Metes and Bounds Survey
If your deed features a metes and bounds survey—a survey that describes the exact distances and directions from one established point on your property line to the next—you’ll have all the information you need to find property lines. Unfortunately, this type of legal description is notoriously difficult to comprehend unless you’re a surveyor.
The metes and bounds survey cites a starting point, located at one of corners of your property. From there, the survey will give you detailed directions and distances to help you locate the rest of the corners and boundary lines of your property. It’s similar to a connect-the-dots game, except you do it on foot, not on paper. You’ll need a long measuring tape as well as a good-quality directional compass so you can move systematically from point to point.
But egad! You’ll find that a metes and bounds survey reads like a Shakespearean play. A typical survey may tell you to “commence” from the point of beginning (POB), “running thence westerly 100 feet, thence southerly at an interior angle of 55 degrees to a point,” and so on until it brings you back to the original starting point.
Before building a new structure or installing a driveway, it’s vital to have a professional come out and mark the property lines. Property pins can be moved over the years, and in some cases, the boundary may extend past a property boundary marker if a previous owner bought or sold land to a neighbor. In a best case scenario, you may have more land than you thought you did. In a worst case scenario, you may have poured the driveway on the neighbors’ land, and they can make you tear it out.
What Are Boundary Line Agreements?
Without getting too technical, boundary line agreements are special legal contracts written between neighbors. They are used to settle any disputes over existing property lines are boundaries. While the exact contract requirements and inclusions will vary depending on your state, they are always used to ensure two or more property owners agree on how property lines are used and divided. Note that boundary line agreements aren’t the exact same thing as boundary line adjustments. Boundary line adjustments, instead, are created when property owners need to exchange land. This involves redefining or redrawing property lines between them. In some cases, but not all, this may involve money. For example, if you and your neighbor want to trade bits of property in your backyards for different elements, you can draw up a boundary line adjustment to make this legal.
So, what do you use boundary line agreements for? One common example occurs when one neighbor accidentally encroaches on another person’s property by planting hedges or building a structure. This may occur if the original property owner does a land survey and discovers the error. In that case, the property owner needs to create a boundary line agreement with their neighbor if they want to retain the title to that property piece. The resulting boundary line agreement will include an acknowledgment by your neighbor that they accidentally encroached on the property, as well as an acknowledgment on your end that you will let the structure remain standing. In this way, the structure builder can keep control of the building while you retain control of the actual land it is built on.
How to Find Property Lines for Free
A homeowner’s deed should include a legal description of the plot of land, including its measurements, shape, block and lot number, and other identifiers such as landmarks and geographical features. If the language is tricky, reach out to your real estate lawyer or agent for help in deciphering it.
A Tape Measure
If you want to visually confirm your property lines, you can use a tape measure to determine the boundaries. From a known point detailed in the deed’s description, measure to the property’s edge and place a stake at that point as a marker.
After all the edges have been determined, measure the distance between the stakes. Compare the results to make sure they match the corresponding deed or plat.
Existing Property Survey from Mortgage or Title Company
Most mortgage lenders require prospective homeowners to have a current survey, and your title insurance also depends on it. If you bought your home recently but don’t have the survey, contact either company to see if they have a copy on file.
Existing Property Survey from County or Local Municipality
A property’s history and legalrecords are generally kept in the municipality or county’s tax assessor’s office or in its land records or building department. You can usually begin your search by going online to access the relevant property records. Most municipalities offer this information for free, but some offices may require a small fee or ask that you access the records in person.
At the corners of your property, you may be able to find steel bars that have been buried, sometimes still visible, with a marked cap on the top end. These were likely placed on your land when a survey was completed. If you can’t readily see the pins (they may have been buried over time), use a metal detector to help you locate them.
While this isn’t a legally binding way to determine your property lines, it will give you a good idea of the boundaries. Warning: Before you start digging, call 811, the national call-before-you-dig hotline, to request the location of buried utilities you don’t want to inadvertently dig into an underground utility line.
Use an App
Download an app like LandGlide that uses GPS to determine a parcel’s property lines. LandGlide is free for the first seven days.
As a homeowner, it’s crucial that you’re aware of property lines so that you can respect your neighbor’s property and avoid any legal disputes. If you’re struggling to find your home’s property lines, utilize one of the aforementioned strategies, or go online to check. Remember that before you or your neighbor build a fence on the property line, make sure to consult with each other and a real estate agent about your property’s rules and regulations. For more information about buying real estate, check out our other resources for further reading on properties and mortgages.
Can My Neighbor Build A Fence On The Property Line?
If your neighbor is thinking about building a fence on the property line between your two homes, it’s important that they are aware of all necessary laws and regulations. Where a neighbor can build a fence on the property is dependent on jurisdiction laws, as well as any deed restrictions on either of your homes. As a general rule, laws typically state that a fence must be built at least 2 – 8 inches from a neighbor’s property line. A fence built directly on a property line may result in a joint responsibility of the fence between the neighbors, including maintenance and costs. Just as a precaution, if you or a neighbor are thinking of building a fence on or near one of your home’s property lines, make sure to consult your real estate agent on any rules and regulations.
Check your deed. The deed contains a description of your property’s measurements and boundaries in words. Measure from the landmarks in the description to the property lines. Mark each corner with a stake or other marker. Measure from each stake to the next all the way around your property to ensure the measured lines match the deed. Physically measuring the boundaries will allow you to visually determine where the lines are and avoid encroaching on your neighbor’s land.
Look at your property survey. The survey is a document with a rendering of the property lines and measurements, and should have been given to you when you bought your home. The distance from your house to the property line and the street should be shown on the survey. Use the measurements and details about surrounding landmarks to visually determine the property lines and avoid land disputes with neighbors.
Why is it important to know the location of your property lines?
Property lines are in place to keep one property owner from encroaching on another owner’s land or compromising their privacy by building too close to their house. A typical encroachment might be tree limbs that grow past your property and overhang into a neighbor’s yard or a driveway poured to extend onto a neighbor’s property. When you know exactly where your property lines fall, you’ll avoid accidentally encroaching on your neighbor’s land.
If you plan to build a permanent structure, you’ll want to be as accurate as possible, and ordering your own land survey is the best option. In most states, you are required to call a diggers hotline 811 to request buried utility information before you build a fence, plant a tree, or extend your driveway. This call ensures you know the location of any buried wires or irrigation systems to avoid causing damage. Within a few days’ notice, someone from your local utility company should be able to mark county wires or pipes with spray paint or flags.
Since property line information can be valuable to someone you may sell your house to, you will want to keep all records. Keep a copy of a new survey you’ve completed, a plat map, or any information from the city or county offices in digital or hard copy format. If you do a new survey, you may also need to register it with your county assessor or recorder. During the sale of a property, the title company will search for encroachment of one property into another. They may refuse title insurance to the seller if they find a property line dispute.
When you know how to find your property lines, you’ll gain peace of mind for any project that could come close to the edge of the property. Showing respect for your neighbor and their property rights can help you avoid a lawsuit.
How Property Lines Are Calculated
We know that fences don’t line every landowner’s plot, so how do we define where one yard ends and the neighbor’s begins? It’s a little less than precise, but to help make things more standardized, nearly the entire country has adopted a protocol called the Rectangular Survey System (RSS).
If you’re thinking RSS as in email, think again. Land surveyors use RSS to develop a system of rectangular parcels of land that can be added and measured to create an outline of the property. RSS works by dividing all land parcels into roughly 1-mile sections. The word “roughly” is used because these sections are hardly ever perfect. Roads, creeks, rivers, lakes and tree lines often get in the way of the perfect mile. The lines are then separated into two types: meridians and baselines. Meridians run north and south, baselines run east and west.
The RSS system was first used in eastern Ohio in an area called the Seven Ranges. The epicenter of the system is on the Ohio – Pennsylvania border near Pittsburgh. County lines regularly follow this survey, and the creation of it in the Midwest explains why many counties are rectangular shaped. This system has since become the nationwide standard of how we calculate property lines today.
So, what does this mean for appraisers? While conducting an appraisal of a given property, the appraiser will visit the county assessor’s office in the local municipality to acquire property records. They will look at the parcel ID and legal description to verify the basic description of the property location.
If the property is in a subdivision, then it will most likely be measured by RSS, and property lines can oftentimes be identified on the associated plat map. If the appraiser cannot verify the property boundaries, they will have to request a copy of a survey that would have to be performed by a licensed surveyor.
The Bottom Line
Knowing property lines is an important part of both buying a home and owning a home. When buying, property lines lay out in black and white what you’re buying. As a homeowner, property lines let you know what you’re responsible for. If a tree falls across a property line after a storm, it’s important to know who’s liable for cleaning it up and covering damages. By knowing how property lines are calculated and what to do if your neighbor builds on your property, you’re a responsible property owner. Taking care of what you own is essential to maintaining its value, both in the financial sense and the personal sense.
For more helpful information on home buying, owning and selling, check out the articles in the Quicken Loans® Learning Center.