Land Survey Maps: Topographic, Soil, and Geologic

Land survey maps aren't just for experts. You can use them to find out almost anything you want to know about your land.

| November/December 1981

Yes, folks, the government sometimes does work for the little guy. Many of us don't realize just how helpful Uncle Sam can be, especially to people who need information about land. Whether you're looking at a tract you'd like to buy or evaluating different ways of using some acres you already own, government-issued land survey maps can be invaluable in helping you make informed decisions.

Of course, anyone who's examining a prospective tract of land or planning a new project on his or her spread is bound to have a lot of questions. Such an individual will perhaps want to know how the acreage was used in the past; or what minerals are present in the soil and what crops it will support successfully; or the location of favorable sites for a well or a solar dwelling; or the area's average rainfall, temperature range, and frost dates. Well, those (and many other) vital statistics can be easily obtained at very low cost—sometimes even free of charge—from good old "Big Brother" himself. All you have to do is learn how to use the various technical maps that government offices can provide.

A Long Distance Land Search

You may be better able to use maps to answer your own questions if you know how I took advantage of this form of low cost assistance. About two years ago, my wife and two children and I decided to buy several acres in Tennessee and to do so while living in Florida! As you might expect, purchasing land in one state while residing in another presents some unique problems. We were glad to enlist the government's service.

After the family returned to Florida, following a somewhat hectic four-day sweep through selected areas of our future home state, we thought we'd found our dreamed-of piece of Mother Earth but weren't sure. Doubts about the acreage kept popping up in our minds, and we felt that our short tour of the parcel hadn't provided us with all the facts we should know before making a decision.

Our first step, then, was to write for a map of the whole area surrounding our property-to-be. (Since we had passed through the county seat on a weekend, we hadn't been able to get one at that time.) Road maps are usually distributed free by county governments, or you might be able to secure one—for a small charge—from the Chamber of Commerce serving the area in question. Then we went on to acquire a complete set of topographic, geologic, and soil survey maps for that particular tract. Eventually—after we learned how to read and interpret all the documents we received—we gained an intimate knowledge of the acreage we were considering, and by the time we returned to Tennessee two months later to close the land sale, we knew our spread inside and out!

Map Basics

You don't have to be a trained cartographer to decipher topographic and geologic maps. In fact you need only a few simple skills, most of which you probably learned in your sixth grade geography class. North, of course, is always at the top of the map as you hold it straight in front of you, with the other directions at the corresponding positions on the sheet: south to the bottom, east to the right, and west to the left.

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