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What is a Land Survey?
Do I need a land survey when I buy real estate on Martha's Vineyard?

A survey is the process of measuring a piece of land to establish its legal boundaries.

Considering that your Martha's Vineyard house and land represent one of your largest assets, it makes sense that you should know as much as possible about the physical characteristics of your Martha's Vineyard real estate investment. Obtaining a survey may be the most important thing you do before you close on any property. Without a survey, you do not know the true details of your property and are risking your investment. A minor discrepancy in the boundaries can make a big difference. Something as seemingly innocuous as a fence can create expensive litigation and ill will between neighbors.

I have always found it odd that on Martha's Vineyard, property bounds are rarely marked and the original markers, if any, have long since disappeared (i.e. a tree that no longer exists or a drill hole in a rock that was moved long ago). A buyer is forced to guess where the boundaries are, based upon a vague description evidenced by where a hedgerow, stone wall, utility box or fence line is. The seller or the seller's agent may be able to point out approximately where the property line is, but that is usually the best you can expect. Lenders did not require surveys until 1987. A mortgage company, whether it is a bank, trust company or some other financial entity, wants to be sure that the land and buildings to which they are lending money be exactly as described in the documents that accompany the transaction. The lender also needs to know that if you default on the loan there will be no problems in re-selling the property. A survey not only protects the lender's investment, it ultimately protects your Martha's Vineyard real estate investment.

A survey discloses the actual lot size, whether the structures on the property are within the boundaries of the property and conform to building setbacks. A survey identifies pool and fence locations and determines whether they meet local zoning by-laws. An up-to-date survey even identifies any encroachments imposed by abutting properties and any easements that may have an impact upon the property title. Most lenders will not accept a survey if it is more than six months old; however, if the seller has a survey, ask them who did their survey. It may save you some money if the surveyor will update the survey.

A trained professional engineer called a surveyor, performs this service. There are only a handful of reputable surveyors on Martha's Vineyard, and most of them always have a backlog of work so you should order a survey as soon as you have a solid Purchase and Sale commitment. Survey prices vary quite a bit. The cost of a survey can range anywhere from $600.00 up into the thousands so ask your settlement attorney for an estimate. I have provided a listing of ENGINEERS - Civil and Surveying here so you can arrange for your own survey instead of letting the lender choose, but make sure that a copy of the survey gets to the lender well in advance of the closing. Although the bounds will be flagged, if you want permanent markers (monuments) installed it will cost extra, but I think it is a good idea. You should arrange for the permanent cement markers when you order the survey. Of course, you can install your own boundary markers later on by simply using steel fence stakes to replace the wooden stakes.

If you are buying a condominium unit on Martha's Vineyard, a survey will have already been done as part of the condominium plans, which were recorded with the condominium documents. You will not have to go through the expense of obtaining a separate survey for your particular unit.

Today, title insurance companies, when issuing a title insurance policy, will issue an exception to title unless an up-to-date survey was obtained. Since Lenders insist on receiving a clear "lender's" title insurance policy, covering the face value of the mortgage, it becomes necessary to obtain an up-to-date survey to satisfy the lender's requirements. The most common type of survey is called a "house location survey". Title insurance companies do not consider this type of survey to be the most "accurate survey". Therefore, they will reject most claims regarding boundary disputes. This is why title insurance generally excludes "encroachments, overlaps, boundary line disputes and any other matters which would be disclosed by an accurate survey and inspection of the premises." In order to have full title insurance coverage, the purchaser should obtain what is known as an ALTA (American Land Title Association) Survey. This very comprehensive survey details exactly what the property is that you are purchasing. An ALTA survey will cost considerably more than the house location survey, which is why many residential purchasers would rather take a chance that the house location survey will adequately protect them. If you like gambling, be my guest, but on Martha's Vineyard Island, title problems are a common occurrence.

Sometime before the closing, you should ask your settlement attorney to review the up-to-date survey with you and discuss any potential problems that may have been uncovered. Who owns the fence? Is the driveway shared by an easement or do you own it? Who owns the trees and shrubs along the boundary line? Etc. Once you own the property, it may become much harder and more costly to settle any issues related to boundaries. Also, when you go to the closing, make sure you get a copy of the survey for your own records.

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