Your right to build or farm, your right to live on land the way you see fit, even your family dog's right to roam at will — all stop at that line.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
MOTHER's HANDBOOK: Finding property markers saves your time, expense and trouble when you perform your own home property survey.
Perform Your Own Home Property Survey
Because I live in the country and have done some surveying,
I am often being asked about property boundaries. The
questions are varied: "How much does a surveyor cost?" "Can
I do it myself?" "What equipment do I need?" "What do my
property corners look like?" "What are the laws concerning
surveying and property boundaries?" "Where are my property
records?" People ask these questions, not from a desire to
fence and post their land, but because of pride of
ownership, the desire for knowledge, or — sometimes
— to protect themselves from the threat of
Take my friend up the road. For years, he had lived
peacefully on his 20-acre farm. Then a smooth operator
bought the property next door, and subdivision plans began
looming on his boundaries. My friend ended up paying a
surveyor $1,500 — just to ensure that the new
neighbor's ambitions wouldn't include any of his
A thin line separates the smooth operators of this world
from those of you who prefer to live and let live —
the boundary line of your property. Your right to build or
farm, your right to live on land the way you see fit, even
your family dog's right to roam at will — all stop at
that line. This article will tell you everything you need
to know to find it, on the ground . If the thought
of doing your own home property survey scares you, don't worry. You
don't have to be a genius to find your property boundaries
— just a detective.
Knowing how to find your own property markers can save you
time, expense, and trouble. But be aware that there's a big
difference between finding established lines and
setting new ones (or adjusting incorrect old
ones). Only a licensed surveyor is legally qualified to set
or move lines.
How to Read a Property Description
You've heard it said that the job isn't over till the
paperwork is done? In this job, the paperwork comes first.
Don't set foot outside until you have in hand every
document that could help. First on the list is the portion
of your property deed called the legal description
: the description in words of your property lines. And
before you can understand how to decode that description,
you must learn which of the two common surveying methods
applies to your property. One is the metes and bounds
method; the other is the public land survey system.
Metes and bounds is the most common surveying
method and the one used almost exclusively in the East.
Metes and bounds defines property by its boundary lines,
each line consisting of direction (or bearing) and distance
(or length). Here is an example:
Beginning at a point 247 feet due east of Henly Fork,
thence N47W, 210 feet, thence N43E, 204 feet to an Oak,
thence S47E, 210 feet to a post, thence S43W, 204 feet to
the point of beginning. Containing 0.98 acres, more or
Notice that each leg consists of both direction and
distance. With a compass and a tape measure, you could walk
around the perimeter.
The public land survey system evolved in response
to helter-skelter settlement in colonial times. In the
1700s, nobody knew how much land anyone owned, or where it
was. In northern Georgia, for instance, entrepreneurs sold
over 29 million acres in a three-county area that contained
only 9 million!
Thomas Jefferson solved the problem. During his presidency,
the federal government sent a small army of surveyors
across the Appalachians with instructions to split the
frontier into squares, placing boundary markers every mile.
Thus, the public land survey system consists of a
checkerboard of square-mile lots, called sections
. Each one of these sections contains 640 acres and a
boundary marker at each corner.
To encourage people to fill up the sections, the government
created homestead allotments. The basic allotment was 160
acres — a quarter section. The surveyors marked these
boundaries, too, and called them quarter corners.
Now, all this won't help you unless you know how to read a
public land description (Figure 1). It sounds hard until you
get the hang of it. Each quarter of a section bears the
name of its compass location: NE, NW, SE, SW-e.g., "the SW
1/4 of section 3." Want less than 160 acres? Chop the SW
1/4 into quarters again. Each quarter-quarter is 40 acres.
One of them could be named the NE 1/4 of the SW 1/4 (shaded
in Figure 1). And so on down. (On occasion, adjacent quarters
will be combined to yield a "half," e.g., "the south 1/2 of
Thus, a public land description will not list boundary
lines. Jefferson designed the system so that all
boundary lines run north-south and east-west — along
the quarters as well as the sections. Since section
boundaries are exactly one mile long, subunit borders will
be exact fractions of a mile.
Preparing for the Search
There are even better information sources than your deed.
The best (and sometimes most elusive) document you can lay
your hands on is the surveyor's map, or plat (Figure 2). The plat translates that legal confusion of numbers and
terms on the deed into pictures. It may also show
references to natural landmarks, or triangulation data
which may locate a particular point.
Plat-chasing is a major pastime among surveyors. Your plat,
if one exists, may accompany your deed. Or it may languish
in city or county records (clerks' or surveyors' offices
would be the best places to search) or reside with a
previous owner. Plats of neighboring land are helpful, too.
They may show the location of a common boundary.
If you live in a subdivision or built-up area, you may be
wondering why your deed's legal description reads only "Lot
22, Rock Creek Estates" or "Tract A, First Addition." But
these, too, are metes and bounds surveys. The surveyors
created several lots at once, so they drew one map of the
whole thing. Deed descriptions merely refer to the master
plat, which you will find in the public records.
You should also keep an eye peeled for early versions of
your property description, surveyor's notes, and
descriptions of roads that border your land. Why? First, to
ensure that your deed doesn't contain mistakes; second, to
find out all you can about boundary markers — the key
to property lines.
You are now nearly ready to step into the
surveyor's shoes. First, though, you'll have to gather your
equipment. You'll need a compass, long measuring tape,
plumb bob, level, hatchet, some ribbon, and stakes. You'll
also need a willing assistant. Now check your
instruments. Do they read in the same numbers as the
survey? If not, you will have to translate.
Most people will have on hand the type of compass that uses
the directional measurement known as azimuth .
Being ornery as a rule, surveyors use another system,
called bearings. To learn how to translate one to
the other, see the end of the article section "Converting Azimuths to
On to distances. We measure lengths in feet and inches,
don't we? Well, the surveyor uses either feet and
tenths of a foot (be very alert for this!) or a
venerable system called chains . Don't panic at
this. A chain measures 66 feet. Why 66 feet? Because it's
convenient for land computations. Ten square chains equal
one acre — which means to compute acreage rapidly,
all you have to do is find the number of square chains,
then move the decimal point once to the left. Also, one
mile stretches exactly 80 chains.
A hundredth of a chain — about eight inches —
is called a link . Old-timers also used a
quarter-chain measure (16-1/2 feet), calling it a rod,
pole, or perch.
I find that if I'm faced with a description written in
bearings and chains when my equipment reads in azimuths and
feet, my brain reels at the prospect of translating and
tramping about at the same time. It's far better to
translate all the degrees and distances on paper before you
Finally, the Fieldwork
Now you can begin your scavenger hunt.
Step one: Always start from a known point. It must be
something you can absolutely match with the written record.
It may be a marker on your boundary, if someone has already
made a positive ID of it. More likely, it will be a road
crossing, a section corner, or even a neighbor's marker
(garnered from that plat you unearthed in the public
records). Don't trust ditch lines or fence
corners, unless the record mentions them.
Step two: Measure off the course, direction, and distance
exactly as the deed says. Flag the line with your ribbons
as you go. Make sure that your flags all line up straight
and in the right direction. (Your assistant can be a great
help here.) Watch out for any iron or steel objects or
anything carrying electric current while you walk —
they can attract the compass needle and throw your readings
off. If you come to a large obstruction, you can measure a
line exactly parallel to your boundary line for a
short distance until you get by the obstacle (Figure 3).
Surveys always measure distance on a horizontal plane,
not along the ground slope. Unless you have a
calculator that's well versed in trigonometry (for equating
slope distance to horizontal), you, too, must measure on
the level. To do so, whenever you're traversing hilly land,
you and your assistant need to hold your tape (or a
measured length of string) along your directional line and
exactly level (use your level to determine this). Then, let
your plumb bob hang vertically down from the tape (or
string) end to determine where on the ground that
horizontally measured distance falls (Figure 4). Repeat as
needed to accurately measure across rises and dips.
Step three: Once you've traveled the full distance in one
direction, search for the boundary marker. This is always
my favorite part. Will you know it when you see it? If
you're lucky, your plat or deed will mention how the
surveyor marked corners. If not, you're in for some
Sherlock Holmes-style detective work.
You are looking for some object artificially placed in a
certain spot (Figure 5). What kind of object? If your
documents omit mention of the markers, look for a date of
survey, a clue to the type of marker used. Nowadays,
surveyors use well-anchored pipes or steel rods, capped
with brass, aluminum, or plastic, embossed with the
surveyor's registration number. But years ago, they used
anything handy. That included railroad spikes, wooden
stakes, even broken glass (usually from a convenient
If you know you're seeking a buried pin, you can
use your compass as a metal detector (Figure 6). Stand so the
compass needle is pointing due north, then turn the compass
vertical — so the needle points up. Keep facing north
and move the compass back and forth over the approximate
pin location, holding it about a half-inch to an inch off
the ground. If the needle spins downward and points to the
ground — dig.
The public land surveyors often spent months or years on
the frontier, and couldn't afford to carry around a load of
markers. Thus the identity of their monuments varied
widely. In the prairie, they filled pits with charcoal. In
the mountains, where they spent most of their time hacking
brush, they simply left an etched stone buried at the
section corner. They would use witness trees in
their notes to relocate the marker through triangulation.
Remember, markers don't last forever. Wooden stakes may
last less than 10 years. A "10 inch pine" in ancient notes
may be a 20-inch pine today — or a rotting stump.
Step four: Proceed to the next point. Don't give up if your
search has so far proven fruitless. The next corner may lie
in plain sight. And that's a bonus, because the more
corners you find, the greater your chances of finding the
remaining ones. You'll know what you're looking for and be
able to zero in on it from two sides.
One possible monkey wrench that may be throwing you oft:
Your deed bearings may not be written in terms of
magnetic north (a compass actually points to a
"false North Pole"). They may be written in true
north (referring to the real North Pole) or even in
grid north (referring to an artificial regional
standard that uses parallel "north-south" lines). Then too,
even magnetic north shifts some over time. So if your
bearing readings seem to be causing you trouble, take a
compass reading between two known points of your
deed or plat, and compare that to the recorded bearing. If
there's a significant difference, adjust all your bearing
readings as needed to compensate.
Step five: Preserve the markers you find, but DO NOT MOVE
THEM. They are considered legal boundaries only as long as
they remain exactly where they are. You cannot move them to
where you think they ought to be. Only a licensed surveyor
can do that. The difference between you and a surveyor
(besides $400 a day) is that only that person can establish
property lines and testify in court on their whereabouts.
If there are serious legal problems with your boundary, you
will need a surveyor.
Do-it-yourself surveying can stave off disputes with
The Home Property Survey: Know Your Land
So what have you accomplished? A lot. If you found some
corners, you may have staved of a boundary war with your
neighbor. Show him or her what you've found, so you'll
agree. Then paint a few trees or pile rocks around the spot
so it doesn't go to weeds. Don't force your grandkids to go
through the same search.
Even if you didn't turn up any corners, your time hasn't
been wasted. You've probably dug up some useful old
records, and that's half of what you'd pay a real surveyor
CONVERTING AN AZIMUTH TO A BEARING
The normal hand compass is marked off in azimuths
. An azimuth is a direction — from 0 degrees to 360 degrees
— measured clockwise from due north. Thus, north is
0 degrees, east is 90 degrees, south is 180 degrees, and west is
Bearings start with the same 360 degree circle, but
it is divided into quadrants of 90 degrees each. On either
side of due north are the NE and NW quadrants. Likewise on
the south: SE and SW. Every direction reads as an angle to
the east or west from north or south.
Sound confusing? Let's look at an example:
This angle, roughly southwest, has an azimuth
reading of 230 degrees.
180 degrees is due south, so 230 degrees is due south
plus 50 degrees to the west. Thus 230 degrees becomes "an angle
from due south of 50 degrees to the west" — or, in
surveyor's shorthand, S50W.
Got it? Let's try another one. What's the bearing
equivalent of azimuth 25 degrees? If you said, "It's N25E" (an
angle from due north of 25 degrees to the east), you're ready
to get out and start walking your boundary lines!
If your property has a simple rectangular shape, you don't
need to read this. But what about those of you with
odd-shaped lots with five or ten separate sides? Before you
throw in the towel, try this method for computing your
First, make a scale drawing of your property on grid paper
(Step 1). It doesn't have to be entirely accurate, but it
should be large enough so you can write plenty of figures
inside. Write the direction (in bearings) and distance
along every boundary line.
Second, draw lines running north-south and/or east-west
through every angle point. You need be concerned only with
lines in the interior, and once they meet another inside
line, you need draw no further.
Your polygon is now divided into rectangles and right
triangles (Step 2). To figure out the area of the
triangles, all you need is a math book or calculator with
sine and cosine functions. Remember them from high school
trigonometry? In a right triangle, the sine equals the
length of the side opposite an angle divided by the length
of the hypotenuse (which, you'll notice, is always a
boundary line with a known length). A cosine equals the
adjacent side divided by the hypotenuse.
You already know one angle of each triangle —
remember, the bearing is the angle from the north-south
line you drew. So if you look up the sine or cosine
(whichever is appropriate) of that angle, you can use that
and the length of the boundary line to solve for the
remaining sides of the triangle.
For example, take the shaded triangle from Step 2 —
one that has a hypotenuse of 917 feet running S13E (Step
3). The sine of 13 degrees is .225.
Since .225 = opposite side/ 917, then the opposite side =
206. Now you can use the cosine of 13 degrees, .974, to solve
for the angle's adjacent side: .974 = adjacent side/917 ...
or 893 feet. The area for a triangle is 1/2 base times
height, in this case 1/2 X 206 X 893 = 91,979 square feet.
As you work, write every calculated distance on the
appropriate grid line, and record the area of each
sub-figure inside that shape. When you add all those areas
up at the end, you'll have your square footage. Divide that
by 43,560 and you'll know your acreage.