How to Understand a Land Survey

land survey

A land survey is a comprehensive depiction of a parcel of land. In addition to its exact shape, dimensions and boundaries, a land survey details a parcel’s topography. You may already know a topographic map as one which includes contour lines that show a piece of land’s various elevations. But in broader terms, topography includes all the natural and man-made features a parcel of land could conceivably contain.

Land surveys are used for a wide range of purposes, such as settling boundary issues that have arisen between neighbors, informing land buyers of precisely what they are purchasing, and legally compliant installation of utilities and septic systems. It isn’t uncommon for lenders to require land surveys before granting mortgages to borrowers, either.

Because they must include so many details, land surveys aren’t easy to interpret at first glance. We don’t intend to make you an expert in a single blog post, but simply knowing the following will give you a great head start toward understanding your land survey.


Land surveys contain a number of different symbols. These indicate the exact locations of fire hydrants, water meters, utility poles, gas posts, sewer manholes, catch basins, and other important features. Symbols aren’t drawn to scale. They indicate the feature’s location – not its size relative to other features.

Land surveyors aren’t obligated to utilize a standard set of symbols to represent various natural and manmade features. For this reason, you may see completely dissimilar sets of symbols on two surveys that were created by different surveyors. This doesn’t complicate survey interpretation nearly as much as you might suspect, however. Symbols are usually chosen because they bear superficial resemblance to the features they represent. Furthermore, any professional land survey will include a legend that clearly denotes what each symbol represents.

For examples of the general and utility symbols you might find on a land survey, please review this illustrative chart by the Florida Department of Transportation.


A land survey could theoretically indicate the presence and locations of hundreds of different features. If surveyors wrote out the names of each feature depicted on a plat, the result would be an incomprehensible jumble of illegibly small and overlapping words. This is why surveyors rely on abbreviations – usually one to four letters that stand for one or more words.

As is the case with symbols, surveyors aren’t obligated to use a standard set of abbreviations. Some are easy to assume the meaning of, such as “Ave” for avenue, “BLDG” for building, and “RET WALL” for retaining wall. Others are less intuitive, such as “TSB” for traffic signal box, “WIL” for willow tree, and “BW” for barbed wire. If you find yourself unable to figure out the meanings of more esoteric abbreviations, your land surveyor will only be too happy to shed light on the matter.


A land survey’s most obvious lines are its boundary lines. They are bold, and convey what is arguably the most important information a land survey can present: the exact borders of the parcel.

A land survey’s lines aren’t limited to boundaries. They can also delineate the precise locations of utility lines, bodies of water, building outlines, paving, and any other underground or surface level features. Lines are typically composed of solid stripes that are regularly interrupted by abbreviations of the features they represent, like so:

Gas line:            G            G            G            G

Overhead utility line:            OH            OH            OH            OH

Sewer line:            S            S            S            SH

Note that underground utilities are typically excluded from land surveys unless specially requested. When utility lines are requested, the surveyor can only map them out by referencing whichever information utility companies make freely available. Surveyors cannot pinpoint the exact locations of underground lines on their own!


Boundary lines are legally enforceable, but that doesn’t mean neighboring property owners honor them 100% of the time. Land surveys reflect this reality by pinpointing the locations of any encroaching structures which overlap with or extend beyond the parcel’s boundary lines. These features, which often include fences but may also include driveways, hedges and even buildings, are referred to as “evidence of occupation.”

Evidence of occupation may indicate other property owners’ claims of land ownership, in which case they may evince active attempts at adverse possession. Occupation evidence may also simply reflect neighboring property owners’ unintentional encroachment. In either event, it is important to address any encroachments on your property before they can develop into larger legal issues.

Compass Consultants of Perham, MN provides all major types of land surveys, including ALTA, boundary, location, subdivision, site-planning and construction. If you have need for an accurate survey that completely satisfies the criteria of private and government parties alike, then we welcome you to contact us today for service in Minnesota, North Dakota or South Dakota.