ALTA Survey: When are they really needed in Florida?

When purchasing or refinancing real estate, having a properly conducted survey is imperative.

But not all land surveys are created equally. A customary boundary survey that determines the property lines is typically the survey of choice when conducting the average real estate transaction.

However, the American Land Title Association (“ALTA”) land survey, considered the gold-standard of surveys by many, provides comprehensive protection to buyers, lenders and title insurers alike as it includes the highest requirements and surveying standards. 

The ALTA Survey

The purpose of the ALTA survey serves to establish uniform principles and requirements for land surveying across the country.  While a normal boundary survey provides basic information regarding property lines, the ALTA survey utilizes common standards upon which all parties to a real estate transaction may rely to provide an unbiased opinion of the property’s physical features.

It assesses all boundaries, titles and improvements on the subject location so that the title insurer may remove certain standard exceptions from both the owner and lender title policies.

The ALTA survey is prepared by a licensed surveyor and not only maps the property’s boundaries but also provides the location of improvements on the property (such as extensions, buildings, fences, roads, utility lines etc.), as well as, the location of all access points and easements.

An ALTA survey typically identifies the following features:

  1. Potential easements, or claims thereof, that may negatively impact the property and are not readily available in public records but are reflected in a thorough examination of the physical property.
  2. Any recorded easements that may adversely affect the property from being developed in the future after it’s been acquired by a new owner.
  3. Structures, fences and other improvements from neighboring properties that encroach on the subject property.
  4. Structures, fences and other improvements on the subject property that may encroach on surrounding properties.
  5. Structures, fences and other improvements on the subject property that encroach on utility or access easements.
  6. Roadways and property features of the subject property.
  7. Zoning classifications, including flood zones.
  8. Waterway boundaries and the existence of cemeteries in the surrounding area.
  9. Evidence of use of the subject property by third parties.
  10. The precise legal description of the subject property.

ALTA Survey in Florida:

It’s worth noting that an ALTA survey is not a legal requirement in Florida and is not always necessary.  In determining whether an ALTA survey is appropriate in any given transaction it would be necessary to balance the risk of not conducting an ALTA survey with its cost (on average they cost from a couple thousand to several hundred thousand dollars).

ALTA surveys are most common when acquiring commercial real estate and are usually an important step in a thorough due diligence process.

Two of the most common reasons an ALTA survey is obtained are to identify both recorded and non-recorded issues that may affect the property, as well as, to satisfy a title insurer’s requirement.

Both lenders and title insurers may require an ALTA survey if the property boundaries appear to be complicated or there are several easements or other unusual exceptions that are reflected in an initial title report.

In fact, many title insurers will usually refrain from insuring a commercial property until a survey addressing all encroachments, easements and boundary issues is completed.

Practically speaking, it is best to obtain an ALTA survey sufficiently in advance of having to issue title insurance.

Factors such as the size of the property, existing ambiguities regarding the property’s boundaries or terrain, as well as several other factors influence how much advance time would be needed.

Parties considering the need for an ALTA survey are best served to speak with a qualified surveyor well ahead of time to determine if conducting one is in their best interest and can be done in time for closing.

Those who may be purchasing or refinancing real estate (particularly commercial property) and whose current survey predates the most recent ALTA standard revisions (2011) would be best served to conduct an ALTA survey prior to their next transaction related to the subject property.

It is also suggested that one be conducted if there is any question related to the physical features of the property.

To learn more about the ALTA survey, your legal counsel conducting your closing may be able to assist with determining if one is needed and recommending a qualified surveyor to conduct it. 

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