topographic survey

A topographic map is the best way of showing hills and undulations on paper. You’ve no doubt seen one before. It’s a map with lines that demonstrate the contours of the land. A mountainous area would have many complex lines to show all its various elevations. A flat area would have few lines, as its land is mostly uniform in elevation.

Topography isn’t just of interest to geology majors and battlefield historians. Contractors, architects and other professionals must also know the contours of a parcel of land if they intend to do anything productive with it. That’s why Compass Consultants offers topographic surveys as a standalone service and as part of our other, more detailed surveys.

What Is a Topographic Survey?

A topographic survey is created using specialized tools and equipment that measure the elevation at any point on or below land and even underwater. Sea level is typically used as the reference surface; all points on the survey are above, below or equal to it.

Once sufficient topographic data have been collected, the surveying team creates a comprehensive map of the area: one that reveals all the contours of the subject area, and which also includes the exact locations of both natural and man-made features.

When Should You Get a Topographic Survey?

If you’re commencing a construction or land development project of any size, then it’s crucial to understand how the land’s elevation will affect its overall usability. A topographic survey can help you avoid building where you shouldn’t, as well as indicate where drainage and leveling are required. This is why an ALTA land title survey (i.e. the most comprehensive type of survey available) includes a Table A Item, Item 5; Vertical relief with the source of information (e.g., ground survey, aerial map), contour interval, datum, with originating benchmark, when appropriate, as an option.

While it’s always advisable to get a topographic survey before breaking ground, it is especially important to commission one as part of preparation for any of the following projects.

  • Acquisition of Right of Way – Is your department acquiring land for the purpose of transportation improvement? Whether the acquisition is temporary or permanent, you’ll need to know if the land’s physical features will suit your project before making such a large investment.
  • Runoff Management System Installation – Are you designing and installing a system to safely channel away runoff? Understanding the directions and rates at which precipitation, snowmelt and irrigation flow – and where they will accumulate – is paramount to developing an effective runoff management strategy. Whether your system includes grading, drainage pipes, or both, it cannot be successful unless it is built around a topographic survey.
  • Large Projects – We would never advise doing it, but plenty of people have built houses on land they haven’t surveyed. (The pioneers did not keep surveying tripods in their covered wagons, after all.) But if you’re planning a large construction project – be it infrastructure, industrial, or commercial – you need to know how water will move around the parcel, and whether you need to change its slopes to prevent water from pooling where it shouldn’t. Ensuring a large building’s structural integrity is simply impossible without an accurate topographic survey.
  • Permitting – Some jurisdictions require builders to prove that land is fit for development before commencing work on it. Others may require developers to create surveys for conservation purposes. In either case, a topographic survey is usually needed to satisfy the governing bureaucracy’s approval criteria.

If you are planning construction or a land development project in Minnesota, then you have already found the best solution to all your surveying needs. Contact Compass Consultants today to schedule service at the site of your upcoming project!

construction land surveying - compass consultants

Construction Surveys: Build With Confidence

Architects, engineers and construction managers all share a common goal: to ensure that each project is built exactly to specifications. They will not achieve their goal without careful planning, which includes gaining a comprehensive understanding of the land they are building on.

Fortunately, a single point of reference exists to provide all the information these professionals need so they can proceed with the utmost confidence. This is a construction survey (aka construction layout or construction staking): a detailed report containing everything of interest to builders while they are planning and carrying out construction.

What Is Included in a Construction Survey?

A construction survey begins with a boundary survey: an exact representation of the property lines which ensures the builder doesn’t encroach on neighboring properties. Once those data are established, the surveyor adds the following details:

  • Utility easements, including any legal rights utility companies may have to cross or otherwise access the property
  • Locations of existing buildings, including any encroachments created by neighboring landowners’ properties
  • Locations of underground structures, including sewer and cable lines which mustn’t meet the teeth of an excavator bucket
  • Lay of the land, including topographical information which bears heavily on the project’s placement, floor plan and elevations

A construction survey doesn’t merely represent the land as it exists before the project commences. It also details the locations of roads, buildings and other structures that will have been created by the completion of the project. That provides the contractor with a comprehensive overview of the finished project, thus giving them sufficient time to make changes before it is too late.

When Do You Need a Construction Survey?

Construction surveys are typically required for new residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural building projects. They usually aren’t required for general maintenance projects when no expansion is proposed (i.e. roofing, interior remodeling, residing, etc.).

If you are planning a construction project, it is paramount to determine whether the job site’s governing jurisdiction requires a construction survey before you break ground. But even if you aren’t legally obligated to commission a construction survey, the document is simply too informative to proceed without.

What Is an As-Built Survey?

Whereas a construction survey is created before the project commences, an as-built survey (aka record drawing) is drafted afterward. Instead of its intended layout, an as-built survey formally documents precisely how the project was installed.

In addition to demonstrating that the specifications of the original construction were satisfied, an as-built survey can provide an invaluable point of future reference. Plans are frequently altered during construction projects. An as-built survey accurately documents any changes that were made, which enables the property owner to plan accurate and efficient updates for decades to come. As-built surveys are also crucial to planning the property’s ongoing maintenance needs.

If you are planning construction or a land development project in Minnesota, North Dakota or South Dakota, then you have already discovered your solution to all your surveying needs. Contact Compass Consultants today to schedule service at the site of your upcoming construction project!

existing conditions survey

Imagine you are about to lie down on the ground. What do you do first? That’s right: you check the site for broken glass, pointy rocks, creepy crawlies, and other things that aren’t good to lie down on. It’s instinct.

Now, imagine you’re planning to build something: a house, a gas station, a pharmacy, a creamery – you name it. What do you do first? The same instinct should compel you to order a site-planning survey.

What are Existing Conditions Survey?

An Existing Conditions Survey doesn’t pinpoint the locations of every stone and centipede on a piece of land. Even so, it’s quite detailed. It maps out many of the parcel’s most important features, including:

  • Boundaries
  • Topography
  • Existing structures
  • Trees & shrubs
  • Driveways
  • Utilities
  • Physical Improvements
  • Bodies of water
  • Wetlands
  • Zoning Information
  • Recorded Easements

Insurance providers and attorneys may find value in the information contained by existing condition surveys. Even so, existing condition surveys are typically ordered for the purpose of new construction.

Why Is an Existing Condition Survey Useful for Construction?

Land is seldom ready for construction without preparation. Brush must be cleared. Large trees must be cut down. Some or all of the land must be leveled, or partially removed if the project includes cut and fill foundation work.

The importance of building on level ground cannot be overstated. Uneven terrain leads to structural issues, which are among expensive issues a property owner can have. Ungraded land can also have drainage issues that lead to basement flooding.

In essence, an existing condition survey tells the contractor or foreman everything they need to know before they break ground. It makes the all-important planning phase of their job easier, as well as produce accurate results.

Although its legal uses are limited, an existing condition survey can spare the property owner an enormous legal headache down the road. Knowing the exact locations of boundary lines will help the builder avoid creating an expensive encroachment. No one wants to discover part of their house is located on their neighbor’s lawn.

What Does an Existing Condition Survey Not Have?

An Existing Condition survey is not comprehensive. Unlike an ALTA survey, it may not show plot recorded easements or potential encroachments. Unlike a subdivision survey, it does not break the land down into smaller parcels. An existing condition survey also may omit the legal, economic, social, and political constraints that would have been detailed by a location survey.

What Happens During an Existing Condition Survey?

Different projects may call for different steps, but an existing condition survey usually goes like this. Once we have reviewed the property’s deed, we arrive at the site with boundary and topographic surveying equipment. We pinpoint the parcel’s boundary corners. We collect the elevation data from several points throughout the parcel. We then analyze, validate and collate the data until they form a correct survey of the site. Once we have delivered our client’s final documents, it is only a matter of whether they would like us to monument property corners.

If you are planning construction or a land development project in Minnesota, then you have already discovered your solution to all your surveying needs. Contact Compass Consultants today to schedule service at your property.

location surveys

If Compass Consultants had an office in Pisa, Italy during the 12th century, then the world would not have gotten one of its most famous buildings. We would have carefully scrutinized the proposed site of Pisa Cathedral’s new bell tower, done our research, and reported to our client that the ground was far too soft to support a 183 marble structure.

By the year 1990, its unstable foundation had caused the bell tower to list 5.5° to the side – not so much that it fell over before remedial work would reduce the tilt to just 3.97°. Sure, the Italians could have eliminated the tower’s tilt altogether, but Pisa Tourismo surely would have had a conniption fit if they did.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa was a happy accident. But you should not expect the same outcome if you build on unsuitable land! Heavy clay and sandy soil are both common throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, which means you simply cannot do without a location survey before breaking ground on a new construction project.

What Is a Location Survey?

A location survey is an in-depth analysis of a proposed site for development. It assesses the physical, environmental and legal constraints of the site, compares them to the project’s requirements, and determines whether the land is suitable for the project.

If a location survey produces a positive result, the builder may next proceed to conducting a feasibility study which assesses the economic, social and political factors of the project. (Of course, if you’re only building a house on land you already own, then social and political factors are likely to be moot as far as the scope of the project is concerned.)

When Do You Need a Location Survey?

You should always get a location survey before planning new construction. It won’t just spare you the enormous expense of attempting to build on unsuitable terrain, such as wetland, or too close to other features, such as existing buildings. It will also ensure that the proposed construction is fully compliant with all existing zoning laws. The penalties for violating these laws can include fines, demolition, and even criminal charges in some cases.

Your general contractor may attempt to assure you that a lot is suitable for construction, and that a location survey would be superfluous. They may be correct, but you should still commission a location survey all the same. For all their other experience, a contractor does not possess the same training and equipment as a professional land surveyor, and cannot say with total certainty whether it’s safe and legal to build. A contractor is also probably unfamiliar with every zoning variance the proposed construction site is subject to – another field of expertise which solely belongs to local land surveyors.

When You Build, Build With Confidence

Are you in the earliest stages of construction planning in Minnesota, North Dakota or South Dakota? Leave nothing to chance! Contact Compass Consultants today to schedule your location survey, as well as the ALTA survey, construction survey, and any other survey you need to proceed with the utmost confidence. We promise you this: no leaning building in the Midwest is ever going to become a tourist attraction.

Boundary Surveying

“It’s important to establish boundaries.” This has become very popular relationship advice recently, and we do agree that it can be healthy to forbid your mother-in-law from joining you on your honeymoon.

But as professional land surveyors, we strongly believed in the importance of establishing boundaries long before it became a psychological concept du jour. That’s because land boundaries are fundamental to the concept of land ownership itself – which makes boundary surveys no less crucial.

What Is a Boundary?

Also known as property lines, boundary lines form the outermost edge of a parcel of real estate. If your property were to become its own sovereign state, then its boundary lines would become its borders.

Boundary lines are typically defined according to county or city guidelines, and are available at those entities’ respective assessors’ offices. Deeds, which transfer real ownership of properties, often include boundary line descriptions. Many existing boundary lines are also defined by survey pins, which are physical markers placed by professional land surveyors.

Why Is It Important to Know Your Boundary Lines?

Knowing precisely what your land is – and where it ends – is vital for a number of reasons. It can save you the considerable legal expense of becoming the defendant in an encroachment lawsuit. Likewise, it can prevent you from encroaching on a municipal or utility easement, a mistake that carries equal potential for financial loss. Knowing your parcel’s boundary lines can also prevent you from losing your title insurance – an expensive mistake under many circumstances.

What Is a Boundary Survey?

A boundary survey is a type of land survey that determines the true placement of a land parcel’s property lines. It also indicates wherever there are encroachments, such as a neighboring landowner’s misplaced fence, and easements, such as placement of utility lines

A land surveyor considers many sources of information while preparing a boundary survey. That includes consulting public records made available by sources such as the Registrar of Titles, the Probate Registrar, the Department of Transportation, and the offices of the town and county governments. Conversations with the parcel’s previous owner and whomever owns adjoining property can provide valuable information as well.

The surveyor uses the information they collect to measure, mark and map the limits of a parcel’s boundary lines. This process, which involves identifying physical features which might mark boundary lines (such as a stream), placing survey stations, and establishing traverse networks, is what you see a surveyor doing while they’re out in the field wearing a high-visibility vest and fiddling around with a tripod.

When field work is complete, the surveyor compares its results to those of their earlier research. Once they have carefully reconciled all of the information they have gathered, the surveyor concludes the exact position of the boundary lines. After they have placed new survey pins (or whichever type of monument their client has specified), the surveyor prepares a legal description of the boundary lines and formally reports their findings.

When Do You Need a Boundary Survey?

“Investment must be rational; if you can’t understand it, don’t do it.” Warren Buffett famously said this about investing in businesses, but it is no less applicable to land ownership. In no uncertain terms, if you own land, then you owe it to yourself to understand precisely which land you own. That means engaging a surveyor if you’re unsure of your property’s boundary lines.

Boundary surveys are also routine whenever land parcels are purchased, sold, subdivided, or improved upon. Building improvements, which include additions to existing structures, carry a real risk of encroachment when boundary lines aren’t known. Likewise, if you intend to build a new fence, swimming pool or guest house – or install a septic tank – then you had better make certain to do it squarely within the confines of your boundary lines if you wish to avoid civil court.

How Long Does a Boundary Survey Take?

Not very long. At Compass Consultants, we typically require two to three days to complete a survey, which includes the one to two days we spend onsite. Naturally, the exact timeframe in which we can complete a boundary survey depends on many factors, including the size and complexity of the parcel, the season and weather, and the number of surveys we are already obligated to produce for our clients.

If you’re currently unsure of your boundary lines, preparing to purchase or sell a parcel of land, or planning to build on land you currently own, then we welcome you to contact Compass Consultants today for your boundary survey. We service Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and we also provide comprehensive ALTA surveys, location surveys, construction surveys, and other surveys that present essential information to buyers, sellers and lenders alike.

selling commercial land

Take the first two letters of your last name. Next add the last letter of your first name. Finally, enter those three letters on the Nasdaq, and purchase $700,000 worth of whichever stock they represent.

If you think that sounds like bad investment advice, then you are correct. You should never make an investment until you understand precisely what you are investing in – and commercial land is certainly no exception.

Never Buy Commercial Land Without a Survey

Here is equally bad investment advice: purchase commercial property that you haven’t received an ALTA survey for. You’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars without knowing the land’s boundaries, whether it is subject to any easements, whether it evinces the existence of underground utilities, or the names of the owners of adjoining properties. You truly are flying blind when you buy commercial property without a comprehensive land survey.

Some commercial land buyers assume that a good title insurance policy preempts the need for a survey. Although having title insurance is advisable in the overwhelming majority of commercial land deals, it does not provide complete protection against every potential issue.

Despite what its name suggests, an ALTA Extended Title Policy does not extend to disclose the locations of improvements and utilities. It does not disclose whether the property is currently in violation of municipal zoning ordinances. It does not disclose existing relationships between owners of adjoining land, the relationship of occupied liens to record lines, or other matters which typically aren’t recorded but which materially affect land. Only an ALTA survey reveals such crucial details, and provides the exhaustive picture a commercial property investor needs in order to fully comprehend precisely what they are getting into.

This caveat is a moot point to many commercial land buyers, however. If you are partnering with a financial lender, then it will most likely require an ALTA survey before the transaction can proceed. That’s because the information it presents is crucial to ensuring the property’s value and whether it is zoned correctly. Lenders know that ALTA surveys can prevent massive headaches. Buyers are advised to follow suit.

Never Sell Commercial Land Without a Survey, Either

Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. It has been a tenet of common law for over four centuries, and essentially means that a seller isn’t responsible if their buyer incurs a loss that they could have avoided by inspecting or researching a chattel beforehand.

Caveat emptor is generally understood to apply to real estate transactions as well – but this does not absolve the seller of their ethical duty to represent their property as truthfully as possible.

By revealing the existence of encroachments, easements, boundary line disputes, and other factors which materially affect the property’s value, the seller helps their buyer understand which risks they are assuming and whether they should expect to resolve critical discrepancies. In other words, presenting an ALTA survey to your buyer upfront gives them a better chance of success. That increases their likelihood of buying from you again. It also inclines the buyer to form a favorable opinion of you, which counts for a lot in an industry where a good reputation is worth its weight in gold.

A seller gives themselves another great advantage by ordering their own ALTA survey. If the buyer’s survey presents information that could be used to lobby for a lower price – and that information contradicts the seller’s survey – then the seller has recourse to the buyer’s (possibly dishonest) bargaining tactics. In no uncertain terms, an ALTA survey can provide vital protection against fraud.

Buyers and Sellers Should Discuss Surveys Early On

Whichever side of the closing table you intend to sit on, it’s important to discuss surveys at the onset of the sale process. It clarifies everyone’s expectations for one another, enables the seller to make the property accessible to the buyer’s surveyor, and prevents a “he said, she said” scenario from needlessly complicating the transaction while it’s already underway.

If you’re going to take part in a commercial property transaction in Minnesota, then we welcome you to contact Compass Consultants today. In addition to ALTA surveys, we provide comprehensive boundary surveys, location surveys, construction surveys, and other surveys that present essential information for buyers, lenders and sellers alike!

ALTA Survey

Due diligence. It’s just one way a professional sets themself apart from the amateurs. When a professional is involved in the purchase of a commercial property, due diligence compels them to understand the land it is situated on inside and out.

When it comes to land surveying, an ALTA survey represents the highest degree of due diligence. It is an exhaustive land parcel map – not just a demarcation of a parcel’s boundaries, but a detailed inventory of all existing improvements, easements, and other material information about the property.

The details contained by an ALTA survey won’t just prove useful to the buyer. The comprehensive commercial property report is usually required by attorneys, financial institutions and title insurance providers alike. In fact, these professionals are usually the ones that order ALTA surveys in the first place.

ALTA surveys are especially important to lenders. They use that information to validate their borrowers’ investments. After all, they do want to issue good loans. Title insurers, which sell their clients protection against unknown title defects, have every reason to determine whether any part of real property isn’t legally transferable for any reason. An ALTA survey sheds light on that matter by design.

What Does an ALTA Survey Include?

For a survey to meet ALTA specifications, it cannot merely include boundary lines. It must satisfy a set of criteria defined by two national trade associations: the American Land Title Association (ALTA), and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS).

The Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys dictates standards for measurement, but we don’t need to delve into the meaning of “Relative Positional Precision” for the purpose of this discussion. Let us focus instead on the elements of records research and fieldwork, which require an ALTA survey to include the following information:

• The current record description of the surveyed property; if one does not already exist, then the survey must include the record description of the parent parcel containing the surveyed property

• Complete copies of the surveyed property’s most recent title commitment; if these do not exist, then other title evidence may be provided instead

• Record descriptions of land parcels adjoining the surveyed property, with some exceptions

• Any recorded easements, regardless of whether they benefit or burden the surveyed propert

• Locations of any existing survey monuments

• Rights of way and access, including the names of all roadways abutting the surveyed property, visible evidence of physical access to said abutting streets, and possible encroachments created by driveways, alleys and private roads of adjoining properties

• The locations of all walls, buildings, fences, and other improvements within 5 feet of each boundary line

• The locations of buildings on the surveyed property

• Evidence of easements, servitudes or other uses by non-owner occupants on the surveyed property: sewer lines, telephone lines, fiber optic lines, electric lines, water lines, gas lines, etc.

• Surface indications of underground easements and servitudes, such as vent pipes and utility cuts

• Cemeteries and other burial grounds

• Water features, including those that form boundaries

This is not an exhaustive list of every detail an ALTA survey must include. But as you can see, an ALTA survey deserves its reputation for being so thorough.

An ALTA survey can also contain information that isn’t specified in the Minimum Standard Detail Requirements. Table A: Optional Survey Responsibilities and Specifications gives the surveyor’s client the option to select additional items. These can include:

• Flood zone classification

• Vertical relief (i.e. topographical characteristics of the surveyed property)

• Exterior dimensions of all buildings at ground level

• Measured heights of all buildings above grade

• Substantial features, such as billboards, swimming pools and unofficial garbage dumps

• Evidence of underground utilities

• Evidence of recent earth moving work, building construction or building additions

• Names of adjoining owners according to current tax records

Are you planning on purchasing commercial property? Or do you work in an industry that regularly orders ALTA surveys on the behalf of its clients? Then we welcome you to contact Compass Consultants today. We serve Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and we provide all types of land surveys including ALTA, boundary, location, subdivision, site-planning and construction.

Compass Consultants – Land Surveying was recently featured in the Summer 2016 issue of OTC Family-Friends & Fun Otter Tail County magazine. If you didn’t get a chance to read the article, check it out here.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to grab your copy of the OTC magazine! Swing by the Battle Lake Review offices or visit any participating businesses to secure your own copy and stay informed about the latest happenings in Otter Tail County.

Compass Consultants Inc. is pleased to announce the opening of two new locations this past month, one in Park Rapids and the other in Pelican Rapids. Both locations opened due to the need for a local land surveyor. Compass has a licensed land surveyor in MN, ND and SD.


The Park Rapids location is at 105 Third Street West (inside the current Arvig store) and the local number is 218.237.3697. The Pelican Rapids location is 20 West Mill Avenue (also located inside the Arvig store) and their local number is 218.863.3504. Compass’ land surveying team performs both residential and commercial surveying, land descriptions, and boundary surveys. Additionally, they provide subdivision platting, construction staking, ALTA/ACSM land title surveys, GIS mapping and more.


Compass Consultants, Inc. is a leading provider of professional engineering and consulting services in the Midwest. Also leading in residential and commercial land surveying, environmental and regulatory services, project management and more.