5 Research Tips for the Professional Land Surveyor

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The many steps in performing a professional land survey each come together to complete a survey with many opportunities to achieve success, or suffer failure. Research, field reconnaissance, field surveying, office computations, boundary analysis and plan preparation each rely upon the successful completion of the other.

Sometimes there are obvious major missteps made during one process that result in seriously undermine the successful completion of future project tasks. More common, though, is the accumulation of often small inefficiencies and missed opportunities at each step in the surveying process that snowball causing lost profit, less time available for other work, and when these failures aren't accounted for and fixed can result in a low quality, or incorrect survey.

Today I want to share a few ideas to improve the process of doing research for a professional land survey. The goal is to do the research task completely, efficiently, and not have to go back to do more research or make judgments without the benefit of missing deeds or maps. Hopefully, as research is often the first task which all the other tasks rely upon, if the research is done completely and efficiently, your project will be off to a good start.

5 Research Tips for Professional Land Surveyors:

  1. Organize: Have systems in place to properly hold and organize your research. Once collected, if it is unorganized and messy, you won't be able to easily and quickly lay your hands on the gathered research you need later on, when you need it most. This goes to a larger issue of project file organization: do you use manila folders, expandable wallets, etc. Within your project file find a way to keep all the research together in one place. I like to either staple the research papers, notes and sketches together, or bind them with two-holed prong paper fasteners. Organize each deed or map by marking the deed book and page number, or plat map index number, or whatever system is used by the Registry or Town Clerk, on the upper right hand corner and sorting them from newest, on top, to older documents, underneath. On top of these documents I place chain of title information for each parcel, in numerical order, and on the very top a copy of the Tax Map with the subject parcel to be surveyed identified (also note scale and draw north arrow). This makes identifying and finding the information easy and allows you to better understand the sequencing of events and recorded documents. With all of the deeds and maps in order, you can easily check and see if you forgot to copy any, too.
  2. Examine: Read and examine each deed, survey and map. At this stage just look for missing, or badly copied, parts of the deed, references to other deeds and surveys, easements, exclusions, etc. Make sure that you can read, or have copied, the grantors, grantees, legal description (sometimes that Schedule A mentioned on the first page of a deed, that describes the parcel, is several pages away and can get missed), and recording date. I've found that the part of a copy that is missing will invariably be the part you need to verify, requiring a return trip to the City/Town Hall or Registry, eating up profit and delaying completing your survey. If you find that you need more research, or information from another source, like a fellow professional land surveyor, then make a list and get it done right away before any other work, like field survey reconnaissance, begins.
  3. Analyze: Interpret and make notes and sketches of what each deed or survey describes and what monuments are called for. If possible, start a master sketch (I would also make individual sketches for each deed) and note the geometry and called for monuments. Color coding with a legend can help to identify data sources on your sketch. This is a great way to identify between areas of harmony and discord inherent in the researched documents.
  4. Plan: Make a list of all called for record monuments, what documents referenced them, and identify where, generally, they are to be looked for. This list should have its own indexing system which can be noted on the master research sketch prepared in the above Tip #3. In addition to looking for all the called for monuments, this is a great way to keep track of what was found, why a monument wasn't found and, later, non-record monuments found. Notes put on this list about why a monument wasn't found, like, "possibly destroyed by driveway", or "found lying on the ground", will help you to determine whether or not to look further, or years later why you didn't find a certain monument. Also, if it's noted "vegetation kind of thick", "owners dog was barking", or "I would have had to talk to someone", then that might be a red flag that more reconnaissance is needed in this area.
  5. Teach: Now is the time to completely review the research and plan for field work. Hopefully, before this step you've checked that you have all of the necessary research, it's organized, you've listed every monument to be looked for and you prepared a master research sketch: Now communicate, explain and define your goals for a successful field survey. It's not surprising that many surveying companies end up with a faulty or mediocre survey, at best, when the field crews have no idea as to what was researched and what they should be looking for. This lack of communication and coordination is bound to lead to missed monuments, which you won't take into account in your boundary resolution, and too often leads to unnecessary "double monumentation" when completely unnecessary. Now is the time to teach. Explain what your crews should be looking for, where there is room for a wider search area (one deed says 405' and the other says 415', for example), which lots have junior and senior rights (and why), and what can be gleaned from the intent of these record descriptions and surveys. Finally, be very clear about the scope, project and geographical, for this survey. Much time is wasted by spending field time where it won't matter and, conversely, too much time going back to a job for missed areas.

I hope this, if nothing else, gets you thinking about the systems and processes that go into records research to carry out a professional land survey. Examine at how you perform and use your research, and find ways to do it better and faster. Also, follow up and review what worked and what didn't, making improvements for the next survey.

Take the time to understand your research better, teach, discuss, and share, with your co-workers. Everyone will benefit and your projects will go more smoothly with increased profit.

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Eric D. Colburn, PLS, "The Geo-Business Innovator", helps geo-professionals improve through innovative solutions, mastery of marketing and business growth strategies, and coaching/training. Eric is a successful, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, industry writer, product development consultant, and RI licensed professional land surveyor.

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