Professional Land Surveyor or Unprofessional Weekend Warrior?

Dollar SignEarlier this week a young gentleman called looking for a survey. He just purchased a house and wasn't really sure of what he was asking for, as is father-in-law, supposedly a "builder", had told him what he needed. Long story short, what he was asking for wasn't entirely what he needed.

Unfortunately, I had already quoted him a price for half of what he really needed when he finally consulted with his "builder" father-in-law, who I could hear in the background. But before I could even set him straight as to all of the work he actually needed, his father-in-law blurts out in the background, "He wants how much! So and so will do it for...". So and so is a competitor that I am familiar with and his price was around $400 less than my quoted price, which only included half the work!

I wished him luck and hung up the phone. Pricing a survey can be tough - one surveyor can see a job as a burden while another surveyor sees it as a creampuff, thinking that he or she will still hit a home run even with a low fee. I do know this, though, that with the economy being what it is, my estimates are pretty close to the bone, with little to spare. I also know that I know what it takes to do the job properly and factor that in in every case.

So how is this other surveyor going to survey this young gentleman's property, provide the additional services that are needed and survive? I do know, in large part, what the answer is, but let's throw a few other ideas out there:

  • First, he may cut corners. Sure, he will tell himself that he won't, but when the survey hits the pavement and the clock starts a ticking, with the cost rising hour by hour, temptation to save a little here, save a little there, skip this or skip that, just may win the day. It's more than a little sad.
  • Second, maybe he has already cut corners - Professional Liability Insurance, Workers' Compensation Insurance. Who needs those? Well, the client does. Unfortunately the former is not required and the latter can be avoided, in certain circumstances, in this state. This leaves little protection for the consumer should the so-called professional not act professional or if he is injured, or injures someone else, while performing that survey. Another cost cutting measure may be in not maintaining an office. Hey, having a spiffy truck is enough, isn't it?
  • Last, is bait and switch. Those services which the customer was uncertain of, or not very clear themselves about needing, but does need, will most certainly be "added on" services with an "Oh, I didn't know you needed thaaaat. That was not included in my price and will be extra!" I see this a lot.

With that said, and any or all of the above may or may not be true, the main reason that this other surveyor can offer such low pricing is because he is subsidized. You see, his real full time job is working for a municipality.

Now I don’t have any issue with someone like this who works full time and tries to make a little extra on the weekend. However, when does he have the time to do the research? Even with an hour for lunch, does this surveyor have enough time to travel to the city/town hall to do research, whether it’s his own municipalities or another city or town? What if it rains or snows on Saturday?

So in addition to being subsidized, like having paid health insurance, the real question is, does this person take advantage of the situation and do things like: Say they are researching something for the municipality when in fact they are researching their private project, or do they happen to do a “drive by” for a supposed municipal purpose when in fact they are doing reconnaissance and/or out and out surveying on the municipalities dime?

I certainly can’t prove any of the above and I hope that that’s not what is happening. But I do know this, the new client thinks he is paying for a full time professional land surveyor when, at best, he is only getting a part time weekend warrior.

If this other surveyor fessed up, and was open and honest with his new client, do you think the client would hire him?

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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5 comments on “Professional Land Surveyor or Unprofessional Weekend Warrior?
  1. I believe this phenomenon occurs in all locales. We, the established firms touting nearly 200 years of land records, will always struggle with the guy that undercuts our prices until he has burned all his bridges and is forced to close up shop, or move on. The problem with this individual’s removal is that there will always be one to take his place. Our firm has been in business 30 years and we have seen them come and go, most of which have gone lately. We will continue to see this ebb and flow of fly by night surveyors. As long as we stand on our ethics and practice within our core values we will continue to stand in said ebb and flow for another 30 years.

  2. Brian says:

    What you describe may be true and may not.
    I am now a part time self employed surveyor!
    In 2005 when my daughter came along my wife was not about to give up her career as PT. She works 3 days a week and I used to also work 3 days a week although business is dead even with taking over a firm that my dad helped put in business back in 1976; that surveyor retired. In this business it’s all about relationships. I am certain from your post that when it comes to factoring in overhead mine is nil compared to yours. I have no employees and pay about 5% of my revenue for a $1mil E&O policy. I haven’t visited a county building to do initial research for pricing in years because I can access it online. Although I do chose to drive by sites before I price the job because of the time I have spent clearing line while my Robot sat and waited for me. My biggest issue is that the ‘book’ says you should measure the block and then break out the lot. Well I have other surveyors elbowing me (snickering) when I measure the block for a residential surveyor. I’m lucky to get $500 and will spent 8-12hr, +/-4hr office doing a basic boundary surveyor. Commercial/Industrial jobs is where I made money when their was work. I’m a part time surveyor who maybe losses 1-5 jobs (construction related) a year because I cannot be on a jobsite every day of the week. However most clients appreciated my work, on large jobs I provide them with a quality ALTA and a lower cost than established firms with maybe a bit of a wait and in this climate of work – no wait.
    Just my two cents. PS I know I’m no good at writing but do hope I got my thoughts across.

  3. The layperson has no idea of the spectrum of work quality that exists. Therefore I will continue to build cases of Minimum Standards Violations when I have sufficient time and evidence and take down as many as I can while building a business doing the very best I can. I contacted one surveyor who admitted retracing his grantor’s senior line from his interior junior line which suprised me. I believe I said I had good evidence of the line and at some point he got defensive so I sent him a copy of my plat and re-capped our conversation in a letter. Later he calls the office and said “someone must have moved their pin. Another gentleman missed a major overlap as well as 3 called for stones for a .30 ac cut-out from his tract. What response did we get after we asked maybe he should check it out? It’s just my opinion you can’t hold me to it”!! That’s all you have brother. I just sent documents to the board on something I looked at for a friend that I wont even go into. We’ve got to hold them to the standards!

  4. admin says:

    Jeremiah, Brian and Michael,

    Happy New Year and Thank You for your comments. It’s so great to hear from a cross-section of our profession and from different locales.

    It is, however, also interesting that it seems to be similar, if not the same, wherever you go. It takes a lot of time and manhours to do a survey properly. Most clients, and specifically potential clients, have very little idea as to the extent and scope of work required to perform a survey.

    Educating the public and your clients may slowly help in this area, over time. If every surveyor would take a true and accurate accounting of their cost to do business; tracking all work on a project, supplies, and overall “overhead”, I think they would be amazed at the cost just to send a crew out. Unfortunately, most employ a method I call “Business Justification”, where they try to shoehorn their wants, wishes, and failures into reality.

    Let’s start this new year and new decade off right, by tracking everything we do, accurately, and applying reality to the numbers to obtain an understanding of the real cost of a job and what it takes to get that survey done!

  5. Gregory Letts says:

    Happy New Year. Thanks Eric for the opportunity to ask and respond to this type of question. These questions plague us also on the west coast as well. There are a number of ways that we can fight these problems and each of your responders has touched on some of them. Acquiescence is a problem unto itself that doesn’t help the profession any more than undercutting other professionals. Holding other surveyor’s feet to the fire is a more responsible retort than just quiet acquiescence. Brian’s story brings to mind just those issues that have plagued our profession. In the world of competition the story of David and Goliath is a never ending story. Steve Job’s, William (Bill) Hewlett and David (Dave) Packard, and Bill Gates all started small. As such their competitive bids were different than those from IBM, Burrough’s, and others. In our profession there is a difference when we look at the content of our bids. Our approach to our work should never vary, except by the equipment we have available to do the work. If, to do a lot survey, it requires us to bring in the block it should never be questioned. Regardless the nudging we get from those that lack in ethics. Our industry, it seems, is plagued by this type of problem. Working without necessary insurance, learning to cut corners, working outside the bounds of the laws of the state, working without a contract, working for engineers that look at your work as a means to the end, not filing the necessary survey documents, to make $400 is a big problem of ethics. We must, it seems, to have to get a little more vigilant and police those that work in our industry. If some other surveyor is watching the “Saturday Warrior” will be a little more reluctant to work in this environment.

    I don’t think that it’s a question of professionalism as it is ethics and the law. You can’t deny that they are operating as professionals if they operate with the necessary credentials. Do they operate, though, within the bounds of law and with the same ethical approach as you or I. If ethics are broken then we have to create more laws that are sentinels over others lack of ethical approach. Don’t leave the policing to the State Board; you were enlisted when you were licensed.

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