November 2009: Get Real

November 2009: Get Real

As a potential homebuyer, it’s only natural to assume that the gorgeous four-board fence surrounding the property you want to buy is what demarcates it from the neighbor’s, right? Wrong.

A fence—or any structure, really—can be way, way inside the official property line or encroach into the adjacent property. Not knowing a property’s true borders can, at best, distort your perception of the home’s value, or worse, result in having to tear down structures that violate pre-existing covenants if and when the accurate borders are ever revealed. 

This is why getting an up to date survey of a property—whether you’re a buyer or a seller—is important, says real estate attorney Bill Tucker of Tucker Griffin Barnes. In fact, he says there’s been “an epidemic of problems with physical surveys in Charlottesville” which can be prohibitively expensive for whoever ends up buying or selling the house.

A recent example: A house featuring a brand-new $40,000 garage had just gone into foreclosure. A survey revealed that the gorgeous new garage—which was a big selling point for the home—was actually two feet over the property line on two sides, and it violated the official five-foot setback line in the rear by a foot.

The bank or the potential buyer faced a choice: Either tear down the garage, which would have diminished the value of the property significantly, or try to buy several feet of property along two sides of the garage from the neighbors….and shave the rear wall by a foot.

The buyer ended up going with the latter option (luckily, the neighbors were willing to sell a sliver of their properties!), but it was a set of problems that could have been avoided had the previous owner relied on a plat or survey before starting construction, and been up to date on pre-existing covenants and restrictions.

(A plat is a bird’s eye view of a property’s boundaries. A survey is the same but includes structures on the property as well—the home itself, fences, deck, shed, garage, etc.)

Property lines become distorted for a variety of reasons, says Tucker. One of the more common is when the markers—small, unobtrusive pieces of metal set by the surveyor to mark the property—become lost or buried. Or longtime homeowners and their neighbors rely on physical landmarks—trees, rocks, water—to identify their boundaries, which can change or get lost over time; that faulty information gets passed on to future buyers. 

So if you don’t have a survey of your property, get one. Sellers will usually hand off a copy to the buyer. (If you’re a seller, make sure to display it at openings.) But if they don’t, definitely track one down before making an offer. Surprisingly, the county courthouse doesn’t register or record surveys so it’s up to buyers and sellers to keep track of them.  Sometimes it’s possible to track one down through the title insurance company. Or commission one yourself from one of the surveying companies in town, like Commonwealth Land Surveying, Old Albemarle Surveying or Residential Surveying Services. A survey costs around $500—a small price to pay if it means avoiding much more expensive hassles later.