Invisible Lines: How Easements and Setbacks Can Affect Your Development Project

Most people who are developing or building on land understand the actual lines on a survey: the fences, the utilities, boundaries, curbs, etc. However, the lines on plat that you can’t see by looking at the property have just as much impact on your project. These ‘invisible lines’ are made up of the easements and setbacks that the governing municipality has in place that affect where and what can be built on the property.

It’s commonly known that before you start excavation, always call ‘811’ to have the utility company mark where any underground utilities are located. Just as importantly, call a surveyor when you are beginning your land acquisition process to determine where the easements and setbacks are located. Although not always top of mind, surveyors really should be one of the first firms you call to determine how much land there is and if there are any easements, setbacks or restrictions. They are the front-line people who go out and assess those things. As soon as you put a property under contract, call the surveyor! Find out what the land restriction issues could be, where the stumbling blocks might occur, and make sure you’re hiring a surveyor who understands local development codes and subdivision platting.

If you are developing in Houston where is there isn’t formal zoning, there are still certain codes and ordinances that control all the development across the city, as well as the surrounding counties. If you don’t know those, you can get into a lot of trouble. Setback regulations, as outlined in Chapter 42 of the Houston Code of Ordinances, establishes building setbacks along all public streets. As these change over time, this can impact where and what you can build on your property. Our Houston surveyors can make sure you follow all relevant codes and ordinances.

In addition to setbacks, easements determine right-of-way for public access and utilities companies through land, whether it is privately- or publicly-owned. Tearing down a house to build three townhomes? This will often require platting to update the access easements for the driveways. Looking to combine two parcels to build a large building in the center of the land? This too will usually require updating the easements through the property to gain approval for the construction.

It is key to have a surveyor who understands WHAT you are trying to do with the land, and can guide you through not only understanding easements and setbacks, but also HOW to adjust and request changes. Platting experts that are solely devoted to helping our clients get approval and updates to easements and setbacks are a crucial part of the Windrose team. Our Texas professional surveying crew helps clients understand these ‘invisible lines’ and ensure their development projects are completed timely and successfully.

Should I Buy Property with an Existing Survey?

Regardless of whether you are conducting a residential or commercial transaction, in almost all cases it is the responsibility of the seller to provide a survey for the closing of a land transaction. Section 6C(1) of the TREC contract states: “Seller shall furnish to Buyer and Title Company Seller’s existing survey.” If you are buying real estate, this sounds great from a financial standpoint – it means one less closing cost to worry about. Often a survey is overlooked because it is a relatively small ticket item in a closing compared to the costs of financing. However, if you look at the purpose of a survey, it is just as important because of what it determines.

Most importantly, a survey shows the legal boundaries of the land being purchased as well as any encroachments, structures, and easements associated with the property. It is crucial to know the correct legal boundaries of the property being purchased, and just as important to know other items if the land is being purchased for development. As a buyer, it is important to do the correct due diligence and confirm the survey being furnished by the seller is correct. In most cases, existing surveys are accepted for closings, which means the seller does not have to provide a recent one. Often surveys provided at closing can be decades old and may not capture additional buildings, changes in monuments on the property such as fence lines, or even changes in easements and setback, which affect the buyer’s ability to develop.

Even if the buyer has an existing relationship with the seller and believes that are not acting with any malicious intent, how does the buyer know that the seller received the correct existing survey when they purchased the land? If the furnished survey is more than ten years old, how do they know the quality of the survey work that was done by a firm many years ago, who may not even still be registered? How can they confirm that the existing monuments, fences, and structures are all captured and that no zoning changes have occurred since that survey?
All these are important questions, and the simple answer is that it is in the best interest of anyone purchasing residential or commercial property to request a current survey of the property from a reputable surveying firm. While it is the seller’s obligation to provide a survey often regardless of age, it is the buyer’s headache to deal with any changes or updates to the plat that have taken place since that survey once the land is purchased. For the minimal cost it takes to request an accurate, updated survey, the benefits of knowing exactly what is on the land is well worth it.

While you can buy a property with an existing survey, it is usually within the buyer’s best interest to acquire an updated one.
Windrose Land Services provides Texas with professional surveying services. If you are buying a home or land to develop, our surveyors in Houston, and Dallas will be happy to assist you in this process.

The Purpose of Surveying

In the general sense, to survey something is to carefully review that object or person and accurately record the results. Nearly every time you make a purchase, you are asked to complete a survey. During election season, people receive countless emails or phone calls asking them to answer a few short survey questions to help predict outcomes. The people conducting surveys ask questions about preference or opinion, then record their responses to better understand outcomes. Surveying is how we learn about the world around us, both in understanding human behavior and recording the physical characteristics of land. Land surveying in its most basic sense began as observing and marking specific points on the earth for establishing boundaries, navigational mapping, and building developments. Although the technology has evolved from ropes and pegs to satellite-powered GPS and laser scanning, thousands of years later, the main purposes of surveying remain the same: establishing boundaries, creating maps, and developing land. In each and every project we do, our Houston surveyors are working to achieve one of these goals.

The natural characteristics of the Earth often create physical boundaries such as mountains, rivers, oceans, forests, etc. As humanity evolved, the need for boundaries grew beyond simply using natural monuments, to manmade boundaries for towns and farms to establish ownership. In rural areas, today, one can still find concrete monuments that mark the corners of specific pieces of land. Boundaries are essential for legal reasons, both establishing ownership and outlining what purpose land can be used for. Someone may own a piece of land, but based on restrictions on the land or public need, they cannot simply build anything or anywhere they want. Right-of-Ways for underground gas and water lines may need to be accessed. Building houses or shops right on top of roadways without leaving room for sidewalks is not feasible either. In this manner, legal boundaries for ownership and purpose establish who owns lands, and what it can and can’t be used for.

To get where you want to go, you must know what route to take. Surveying makes it possible to build and create maps by observing and recording characteristics of the land as well as the distance between various points. For centuries, cartographers utilized manual surveying techniques to build and create maps of the physical layout of land. From maps for exploring rural areas to the creation of roadway systems, this information was essential for navigating. Today, satellite GPS and GIS data is used to create maps and routes; thus, the purpose and accumulation of data form surveying remains just as important. Transportation routes connect us as a society, and land surveying is what’s used to connect those routes together.

Building specific sites and laying out the plans for a development requires knowing what the elevation of the land is, where water will flow on the land, and how land needs to be moved to create an environment suitable for construction. The knowledge for developing is acquired by surveying the land to understanding how it will impact building conditions. Is there proper drainage? How does it need to be leveled? Is there proper access? These questions are answered by surveying the land, and that data is used to establish what needs to be done to build sound developments. Our Texas professional surveying company determines these answers when we conduct our survey.

Overall, surveying is observing and recording of information, and land surveying is this practice as it relates to the physical terrain. To establish legal boundaries, create maps for navigation, and construct developments, this knowledge of the physical terrain is essential for human progression to record and ultimately connect the world around us. Our surveyors in Houston, Dallas, and Austin, TX are committed to honoring the integrity of the profession, as is evident in every job we complete.

Evolution of Surveying Techniques

The purpose of surveying has remained somewhat the same over time: establishing boundaries, creating maps for navigation, and developing land. While the purposes of surveying remain constant, the tools used to accomplish them have evolved dramatically with human advancement. Our Texas professional surveying company utilizes a variety of tools to capture the most precise measurements.

Examples of surveying techniques exist throughout human history. Ancient tribesman used ropes and pegs to plan out where structures were to be built. For early mapping, usually existing physical monuments such as rivers, mountains, and forests marked borders between tribal territories and kingdoms. As societies grew and it became important to determine what land belonged belong to which group, natural boundaries no longer sufficed by themselves. Man-made boundaries such as cornerstones, walls, and lines of latitude and longitude become commonplace markers both on maps and in the physical world to establish boundaries.

The increase in human population meant that infrastructure such as homes, bridges, and roads needed to be built on land that wasn’t always flat, or suitable for structures in its natural elevation. Thus, surveying the elevations of the land and the distance in these elevations became essential for land development.
Advancements in instrumentation and mathematics made these man-made markers and infrastructure expansion possible. It transformed the accuracy of land surveying from rough estimates to precise measurements. The Egyptians and Romans both used variations of a tool called a Groma that allowed them to mark out right angles and straight lines for use in developing fields, towns, and roads. Although good at marking out two-dimensional angles, the elevation component—that is, the distance in the height of two points—was a somewhat more imprecise measure until the 15th century with the implementation of the Theodolite, which measures horizontal angles. Combined with the concepts of trigonometry, that is the study of the relationships between angles and their lengths, surveyors could accurately measure both the difference in distance and elevation between two points.

The theodolite, which significantly advanced over the next hundred years through technology, maintained its status as the primary tool for surveying into the 20th century. At the end of the 20th century, robotic total stations and GPS base stations that connect to satellites have greatly advanced the accuracy and speed of the collection of survey data. The GPS base station connects to a satellite which establishes its point on the GPS grid and records it. The robotic total station is set up in a fixed position, and automatically records the field surveyor as they move from point to point. Additionally, software advancements have changed the way surveys are drawn, from handwritten maps and plots, and software programs that layer in various levels of information to form one final product.

As the 21st century evolves, 3D laser scanning and use of lidar allows for every physical point within visible distance to be recorded, both on the surface of the land and vertically, such as trees, buildings, and utility lines. Additionally, mobile mapping allows for survey data to be recorded while in transit, for use in mapping landfill surveys and transportation surveys. The use of drones and drone surveying, which use photogrammetry to perform surveys, is also used as that technology becomes widely available. This allows surveyors to record vast expanses and terrain that is not easy to traverse.

The survey tools used over time have progressed alongside human technology, and with each advancement, they improve the accuracy and speed at which surveying can be done. At Windrose, our Houston surveyors are proud to use a variety of instruments in order to obtain the most accurate measurements possible.