General Question

laureth's avatar

What is the cheapest way to accurately figure out property lines in a wooded environment?

Asked by laureth (27128points) September 3rd, 2012

Mr. Laureth and I are in the middle of buying a home in an undisclosed rural location, which is sitting on several acres of woodland. The property lines are not marked in any way, and it’s visually impossible when hiking to tell where our land ends and the neighbor’s land begins. Since we plan to manage and utilize this land, the borders matter to us.

We could call out the surveyors and have them accurately measure and put their colorful little stakes through the woods, but we expect this to cost a few thousand dollars, which, since we’re buying a house, is not in the budget at this time.

We could ask the neighbors on either side to define the property line as we walk together through the borderless woods, but this seems ripe for trouble. “Suuure, our land ends…way over there!”

We could buy a handheld GPS sort of thing, but those have an accuracy of something like 30 feet. Since some of the jogs in the irregularly-shaped parcel are about 35 feet, this is not really enough granularity for our needs.

Short of crawling around 10+ acres of no-path forest with a tape measure and a can of spray paint, is there a way to accurately, cheaply, and easily figure out the boundaries, or is this one of those situations where I have to pick two of those three, but have to forego either the accuracy, the cheap, or the ease?

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34 Answers

CWOTUS's avatar

If ± 30’ or so isn’t close enough for you, then you probably need to have a survey. And forget about ‘sticks with colored flags’, which are good enough for builders as (very) temporary guides. You really need permanent stakes such as rebar driven deep enough into the ground (or rebar with some kind of barb) that can’t be pulled out without heavy equipment. (Though these could still be cut off at ground level or below by someone with an acetylene torch, and then covered with dirt so they’d be nearly impossible to find again.)

But it might be worthwhile tramping through the woods to look for evidence of previous surveys. Look for iron stakes or small diameter pipe pounded solidly into the ground, or stone benchmarks themselves.

Alternatively, you could possibly include language in the purchase contract that requires a full survey and marked property lines, but… you already know that you’d pay for that one way or another.

I think if I were you I’d start to make broad assumptions about where the property lines are (conservatively, since you don’t want to make enemies of your next-door neighbors on your first week in the new place) and start collecting firewood (for example) and cutting dead trees from the assumed locations. If the neighbors have a complaint, then they’ll probably tell you soon, and no permanent harm will have been done.

laureth's avatar

Thanks! I didn’t know that survey markers were so permanent; that is good to know.

That’s a pretty good idea about poking at the neighbors, too. That might work for the front bit.

LuckyGuy's avatar

At some point a GPS will be +-30 ft but when you have 5 or 6 satellites it is good for 2 ft, and if you average you can get much tighter.

Get a GPS and use Google maps. I surveyed a 20 acre piece of property ~400 wide and 2000 ft deep completely in the woods with a hilltop in the middle . Only one corner was staked. I started there and used my GPS to mark the 4 pin locations. Then I used a little math and made a chart of Latitude vs longitude to define all the points from one pin to the next every 50 ft. I put little flags along the route. When I got to the diagonal corner I found the other pin!!!! I was off by only 5 feet. So, I started at the newly found pin and walked back the way I came putting the flags in a straight line. I carried a Green Laser pointer with me which made things much easier. The flag positions wiggled a few feet in either direction but were reasonably straight. I then walked back to the far corner spray painting trees to make a more permanent line.
It’s damn near perfect.
Good property lines make good neighbors.

Kayak8's avatar

@CWOTUS and @LuckyGuy‘s ideas work great together in tandem. You may want to invest (borrow) a metal detector for helping finding the original surveyor’s pins.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Look to see if the neighbors have had a survey done, for example on their deed. It’s in the County Office building. You maybe able to work backwards from their survey.

wundayatta's avatar

Here’s some online advice. They suggest going to the county assessor’s office to see when the last survey was done and to get copies of previous survey maps. They also suggest how to survey on your own.

Perhaps most importantly, they tell you when you need a professional surveyor. One situation where you need a professional is when you buy property, they say. You may not be able to afford a professional survey, but also may not be able to afford not to. Although, surely the person who is selling it to you needs to have a survey or some way of proving where the property lines are. Won’t the bank make you do this as a condition for the mortgage? I wouldn’t lend money to anyone who didn’t know where their property was, and who couldn’t prove their deed was correct.

laureth's avatar

We’re paying cash, so there’s no bank to get upset about a mortgage. Thanks for the link! We do have a map of the plot, but it’s kind of irregularly shaped and we’d like to be able to transfer that map onto the actual dirt somehow.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

The map of the plot may have pins or markers indicated on it.

The bank of the next owner WILL care where the boundaries are. You may not be able to prove ownership to transfer to the next owner the property.

Use a metal detector as @Kayak8 suggested to find the pipes or pins if it has been resently been surveyed.

dabbler's avatar

Your deed should describe the property clearly, including listings of “Meets and Bounds”, i.e. all of physical features that have been used for reference in determining the property line.
And as @Tropical_Willie notes, the next owner will have some interest in an accurate description too.
Seems like a good investment to get as accurate a survey as you can afford at this time.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Oh, and don’t rely on just the survey. My neighbor had his property surveyed before he sold me the back 10 acres. I didn’t try to map the property from the deed description because what I wanted showed up on the deed. Turns out the attorney deeded the entire property, including his house, to me. He was a good neighbor, I signed a boundary description giving it back to him.

laureth's avatar

We’re hoping there isn’t a next owner – at least, not while we’re alive.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

@laureth Just remember you are betting a lot of money on there not having reason for a sale before you die. At least get title insurance, we had for our last house, when it came time to sell. Low and behold the original owner did not sign the deed. The deed to turn the property over their son that sold the property to us was not valid. Let the lawyers and town figure it out, we were able to close and sold the house.

laureth's avatar

Thanks for the advice! The owner here is a governmental agency that took the place in foreclosure. The deal that we’ve been offered includes title insurance.

tacres's avatar

I don’t know about your neck of the woods but go to your local land registry office. Where I am you can get flat maps & areial ( crap I wish Fluther had spell check) shots. Pictures from the air. Whatever . They sometimes show old boundry lines more clearly than what is visible from the ground. What ever you do don’t ask your neighbours!

laureth's avatar

Thanks! We have both a map and overhead shots. But without being able to tell where the lines are on the ground, as we’re walking them, the good they do is limited.

To be clear: we will own many acres of relatively heavily wooded land, that is adjacent to other wooded land that looks exactly the same, in an unbroken mass of woods. Imagine walking through wooded land that looks like trees all around, and trying to tell where your woods end and the neighbor’s woods begin, by looking at an aerial photograph of a bunch of trees.

laureth's avatar

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. The area outlined in black is the woodsy portion of our property-to-be. For scale, it’s about 10 acres in the black outlined area, and the one building visible in the picture is a large barn. When we are wandering around in those woods, the line between our woods and the neighbors’ adjacent woods on all sides is not visible – it’s just like being dropped in a remote mountain forest.

tacres's avatar

‘K see what you mean. What about getting some one in to cruise your land from the Forestry Dept? Again I’m not sure about your area but they do have people who do that for private woodlot owners. Doesn’t mean you are locked in to any cutting. They are usually pretty good at figuring out lines. I researched our farm at the registry, & found adjacent land owner’s deeds very helpful especially the older ones. If your deed description is in chains, or rods or feet & inches you can get close by measuring on the ground. There maybe marks on trees running in the boundary lines . I would check either side of my road frontage also. Hope this helps. Good luck!

LuckyGuy's avatar

@laureth That’s what my 20 acres looks like so I understand completely. Do you have at least one corner marked? All you need is one landmark. A little high school trigonometry and a Garmin GPSMap 60CSx enabled me to mark the whole thing using the steps above.

MappingSupport's avatar

laureth – I worked many years dealing with real estate and all manner of maps and legal descriptions.

Look at the legal description on the deed. If the property line distances are given to the nearest 100th of a foot, then that tells you the property was surveyed sometime in the past. If so, then if you have approximate GPS coordinates for the property corners you should be able to locate the surveyed corners with a good quality handheld GPS and a bit of careful looking. If the surveyor marked the corners with rebar pounded into the ground, then you will likely need a metal detector (they can be rented).

If I understand the Flurther terms of service correctly, it is OK for me to tell you that I am developing software that can produce approximate GPS coordinates for property corners. If you are interested you can find out more at

laureth's avatar

The “landmark” with which our property description begins is a series of coordinates (GPS style) rather than an actual thing, like a brass plate or something. The property map does list distance to two decimal places of a foot, but I don’t have any corners marked that I know about, so it’s probably that flush-to-the-ground stuff.

MappingSupport's avatar

Could you please post the first part of your legal description? I have never seen one that includes latitude/longitude coordinates.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@laureth If they give you the GPS coordinates that makes life really easy!!! That’s all you need to get started. Like @MappingSupport said, that would be unusual. Typically the description says something like “iron pipe” or “largest pine” or “X feet from center line of XYZ road”. I believe in the future all property descriptions will have GPS coordinates. We’ll finally join the 21st century.

laureth's avatar

Reading the description again, I might have been mistaken – but it sure doesn’t give a clear description of where that point is, like “biggest pine…”

PER SURVEY SEC 3 T5S R8E 12.936 AC COM AT A PT S 89 DEG 54’28“E 161.09 FT FR N ¼ COR OF SEC 3 TH N 89 DEG…

LuckyGuy's avatar

@laureth That is great! That is giving you the directions to walk from a known starting point. Walk in the southerly direction South 89 deg 54 minutes and 28 seconds for 161.09 ft. You can enter that info into the GPS and use it as a destination. Then use the GPS to walk the straight line. There is a window what shows how far you are deviating from the path. Drop “bread crumbs” along the way by sticking small surveying flags in the ground After you finish your 161.09 ft trek, turn around and straighten out the flags so they form a straight line. Bring a laser pointer and a friend. I used rifle scope before I had a laser.

I would suggest yo survey in the fall after the leaves have dropped so you have excellent satellite signal reception. If you do it now you will be under the cover of trees with leaves. You can practice doing it now if you like. The results will not be far off. But it is better if you have 6 satellites all working together. Your error will be less than 2 feet – and if you time average (slower but more accurate) you can be within inches.

MappingSupport's avatar

Thanks for posting a snip from your legal description. No, your legal description does not include latitude longitude coordinates. Instead, your description (1) states that your property has been surveyed, (2) describes the starting point and then (3) gives a series of bearings and distances. This is known as a “metes and bounds” legal description and is the standard method for describing property that has been surveyed.

Do you have a copy of the actual survey? If not, I highly recommend you track one down. It will be time well spent. For example, the survey will tell you the type of monument at the N ¼ corner of section 3. (Pipe, concrete, stone, nail in tree, etc).

If you do not have a copy of the survey then do you have a commitment for title insurance? If so, read it carefully for any reference to a survey. You might learn where a survey is recorded at the courthouse (book and page number, or recording number).

You can also go to the county courthouse and visit the office where deeds are recorded. Ask if they index recorded surveys by section, town and range. If the survey for your land is recorded and indexed by section, it will be easy to find.

If that does not work, then do a title search for your property working backwards until you find when your 12.936 acre parcel was split from a larger tract. That is most likely when the land was surveyed. Pull a copy of that deed. Often times a copy of the survey will be attached.

You could also track down the county surveyor and inquire if they can be of any help. They might simply know which of the local surveyors has done a lot of work in your area.

Also, I recommend you introduce yourself to all the adjoining neighbors. Explain that you wish to locate your common property lines and inquire if they can show you where any of the survey markers are located. Since the land has been surveyed I see absolutely no harm in doing this. This might save you a ton of time. And if your property was surveyed together with any of the adjoining parcels, then one of your neighbors might have a copy of that survey.

CWOTUS's avatar

Excellent responses, @MappingSupport. @laureth should hire you to map out and stake her property, if not perform a full survey. (She could pay off in lurve.)

wundayatta's avatar

This is in the “what do I know” department. I have a few reactions to the photo.

!) where is the road? Do you have any road frontage? If not, how do you access the property? Do you have any kind of right to access the property across someone else’s property?

2) That does not look like ten acres. Either that, or the trees are really huge.

3) Is that a beaver pond? Or some kind of water area on the right hand third?

LuckyGuy's avatar

I just looked at the picture again in response to @wundayatta ‘s questions. Your western boundary is somewhat marked already. Foresters call that a “use line” . Look for barbed wire or tree trunks in a neat row.

laureth's avatar

Wunday: I deliberately cut off the edge of the property with the road frontage. While I know anything we post to the internet is public, I value the thin veneer of privacy that Fluther affords, and I don’t need people knowing what street I may live on (since it was labeled). But yes, there is road frontage, and a house, and 2–3 acres of not-woods lawn. I’m sorry if that doesn’t look like 10 acres, but that is the approximate size of the part that I included in the picture. About the wet-looking area: we went hiking back there the other day, and it is currently a clearing with grasses, living and dead trees, and weedy growth. We think it is seasonally wet, maybe with some mucky standing water during spring melt, and dry and walkable in August.

Luckyguy: Behind the property, as you indicate, is a farmer’s plowed field. However, there is property of his that is wooded, just behind ours and into his field for some reason. The border is straight, but the wooded area isn’t.

MappingSupport: The property deal includes title insurance. The township where the property is located has no online presence (unlike the place where we live now), and the township business hours are something obscenely short (like 10am-4pm, Monday-Thursday), all time when I’m at work. We’ll probably go in sometime, but it’s a “take half the day off work” kind of thing.

I believe the nearest neighbors on the street side own property that was once part of our parcel, if we add their (much smaller) parcels to ours, we get a regular rectangle. So I am assuming that when those shards of land were subdivided off, it was probably surveyed. We just haven’t seen any markers when we were poking around back there, and there is a lot of metal trash around so it should make detecting…interesting.

Can one tell from the bit I posted, what the original point might be? It says nothing like “largest pine” or any real thing in the description, which is sort of important.

MappingSupport's avatar

When you say “The township where the property is located has no online presence” did you really mean the “county”?

If you actually meant “township” then don’t waste your time going there. You need to go to the county offices, not the township office.

Your legal description begins at the North ¼ corner of section 3, Township 5 South, Range 8 East.

If you want to look at an interactive topographic map for your section 3 (along with the standard Google aerial, etc) then you can use the Gmap4 online software that I developed. Think of this software as an enhanced Google map viewer. This link starts Gmap4:

Zoom and pan to your property and then click (in upper right corner) Terrain ==> t4 Topo High. You have to be zoomed in a fair bit in order to see this high resolution topographic map.

Or instead of zooming and panning, click Menu ==> Search and enter your address or nearest town.

The topographic map shows the section lines and section numbers.

laureth's avatar

I did mean to say “township,” not “county.” The county has an online presence, but they refer you to the township for many things.

laureth's avatar

I tried your map, and while I was able to find the road and general area where the property is, there still wasn’t anything hi-res, just green and white areas and lines, looking like this. Thanks, though!

jrushton's avatar

This web application can plot the deed description on Google Maps, and lets you download that to a hand held GPS:

You do need to estimate the starting point, but Google has good satellite photos that can help. Won’t help if the neighbors disagree though- that really takes a surveyor.


LuckyGuy's avatar

@jrushton That web app is A-w-e-s-o-m-e!
Thank you! Thank you!

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