ALTA Land Title Survey: What It Is and How It’s Used

In commercial real estate, a purchaser often requests an American Land Title Association (ALTA) survey to confirm accurate site size, property boundaries, building and improvement footprints and sizes, and any title encumbrances and physical encroachments on the real estate. 

Its purpose is to locate, determine, or reestablish the perimeters, division lines, or boundaries of real estate.

The results of a land title survey serve as evidence that the description in the purchase agreement matches the true state of the property. If the most recent property survey is six months or older, purchasers should require an up-to-date version during the due diligence period of the purchase agreement.

While ALTA surveys are the most commonly used surveys in commercial real estate transactions, other types of land title surveys do exist. 

Different Types of Surveys

Different surveys are used to determine the specific elements of different real estate. The type of survey needed depends on the type of commercial transaction and its requirements for lender financing and title work.

  • As-Built Survey: This survey shows the relationship of a new building to the plans and land on which the building stands or will stand. These surveys usually do not include information on title or boundary issues. 
  • Boundary or Land Survey. This type of survey locates and identifies boundary lines between privately held parcels of land but does not include structures that have been built on the land. 
  • Location Survey. This type of survey shows the location of the improvements on the property in relation to the property’s boundary lines.
  • ALTA/ACSM (American Land Title Association / American Congress on Surveying and Mapping) Survey. This is the most comprehensive land title survey. It plots each element in a title report where easements and encroachments are on the property. It follows standards set by ALTA and ACSM, and shows property boundaries, improvement information (height, size, setbacks, and more), and recorded title items such as easements.

ALTA Survey Process

In commercial real estate, title insurance companies, attorneys, lenders, and developers may request an ALTA Survey. To adhere to the standards set by the American Land Title Association and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, an ALTA Survey includes several steps and processes. 

  1. Research. Surveyors conduct in-depth research into public and private land records.
  2. Field investigation. Searchers look for original survey markers and boundary lines. This process can be time-consuming, depending on the features of the land.
  3. Analysis. The surveyor uses an array of tools to collect and record a number of details about the land, such as building locations, access points, possible encroachments, fences, bodies of water, and utility features.
  4. Map. All information collected during the survey is then used to create a plat/map with detailed notes.
  5. Final review. The title company, lender, and buyer review the final ALTA/ACSM survey documents, provide feedback, and send the survey back to the surveyor for a final signature.

5 Concerns to Address During an ALTA Survey  

As a lender and as a purchaser, it’s important that you clearly evaluate the potential risks and benefits of a particular property. When reviewing an ALTA survey, consider addressing the following major concerns. 

  • Legal description. When ordering the survey, you may also want to request that the surveyor also draft a legal description for the property. This description can then be compared to the description in the property title and deed.
  • Easements. Studying the easements (a person’s or organization’s right to use the land) on the survey will help you determine how they burden or benefit the property.   
  • Encroachments. Determine whether there are any encroachments (an overlap of an improvement from one property onto another property) related to the surveyed property. Some are easy to fix, while others can be expensive. 
  • Setback violations. A setback violation occurs when improvements are closer to the property line than the local zoning ordinance allows. Ensure that there aren’t any setback violations for improvements on the property.
  • Access to property. Use the ALTA survey to identify whether or not you will have access to a dedicated roadway. If the property appears to be landlocked, you will not have a legal way to access your property unless you obtain an easement for ingress or egress.

Importance and Benefits of ALTA Surveys  

For a number of reasons, an ALTA survey is one of the most important documents in the real estate transaction process. It is the official document that can be used both during the sale and in any future legal disputes. This is crucial; without a land title survey, you are unable to compare the legal description of the space with what it actually looks like. It also reveals information not covered by title insurance and informs the buyer if the property is in violation of zoning ordinances. 

In short, ALTA surveys are a critical part of commercial real estate transactions, offering buyers a clear, recorded view of a property to compare to legal descriptions. This land title survey safeguards against any legal disputes, and provides the information you need to navigate such confrontations.

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