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What Clients Should Consider When Ordering Alta Surveys

ALTA Survey 101 for Newcomers

Real estate professionals order ALTA Surveys for different purposes and to satisfy different requirements. The survey may be required to secure title insurance at the closing of a deal, or it may be utilized as a design document for engineering purposes. Several factors determine the cost, lead-time, and complexity of an ALTA Survey. What can Clients do to prepare prior to ordering an ALTA survey? Below are good practices that could help CRE transactions go smoothly.

Articulating Project Scopes

Essentially, the scope of surveying work gets more complicated and takes more time when more improvement is planned for the project. For example, a building with undulated façade and lots of hardscaping and landscaping represents a lot of detailed work for the Surveyor compared to a rectangular-shaped warehouse with striped parking. Informing the Surveyor of your complete scope of work required is step one in ordering the right scope of work for the ALTA Survey. Let’s look at the four types of scopes of work below and see how they differ from one another.

1. Refinancing of existing property (transactional)

For an existing property that is going through refinancing without a change of ownership, it typically means there are existing records such as a title report and a land survey. It is referred to as a transactional survey. Because there is a history of the record, the Surveyor is mostly verifying existing data and surveying field evidence. This type of survey is the most straightforward and the scope of work is easy to communicate. The survey will include standard requirements such as improvements (structures, parking, above-ground utilities, property lines), easements (and other survey-related exceptions to title), title legal description, and encroachments. It is typically ordered to satisfy Lender requirements in the format of a Table A checklist for title insurance. A survey completed more than 180 days ago will require a new field date to be valid.

2. Buying/selling of existing property (transactional)

For an existing commercial property that is being bought or sold, the Buyer is often required to order an ALTA survey to satisfy lender requirements for title insurance. Because of the changing hands of ownership, more stakeholders are involved in the survey approval process. For a sales transaction, typically a Buyer will order an ALTA survey meeting the 2021 Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey, which include standard items, and some Table A Optional Items per lender requirements. When lender requirements are unavailable, the Surveyor could provide guidance for necessary scopes. Table A Optional Item 5 and 11 are excluded because they are only needed for a design survey. Table A Item 5 contains topography of the property, and Item 11 requires the survey to show evidence of underground utilities. When Table A Optional Items 5 and 11 are ordered, the project becomes costly and time-consuming. A savvy Buyer could negotiate with the lender to validate if they are mandatory items.

3. Acquisition of a new property for redevelopment

With planned construction upgrades, zoning information (such as setback, height, and floor space restrictions, and parking) is required to be part of the survey. A zoning report will need to be provided to the Surveyor for compilation. When there is a subdivision or tenant fit-out, the scope of surveying work gets more complex. For example, a buyer of a retail project located in a mall may require appurtenant easements depicted on the survey because the improvement on an offsite easement such as signage or ingress and egress represent a big part of the investment or liability of the fee parcel. The complexity of a redevelopment project could be significant. If there are existing structures that need to be demolished for new zoning purposes and new structures, it will be a multi-faceted survey scope. It will begin with a transactional survey to identify what is currently on the property. After demolition, then the survey will be updated to a design survey, which includes Table A Optional Items 5 and 11. When a construction project affects utilities, pavements, and foundation, it requires the location and depiction of underground utility lines using drawings provided by the Client or the Surveyor’s utility locator, resulting in longer lead-time. After the new structures are constructed, there will be an As-Built ALTA survey depicting the new construction.

4. Vacant land for development (design survey)

An ALTA survey of vacant land is also called a design survey, needed prior to developing a parcel of land. The complexity varies depending upon the scale of the project and the development that the land is intended for. Table A Item 20 allows a design survey to be highly customized. The design survey requires an experienced surveyor with in-depth building and construction knowledge. A client with development in mind is encouraged to onboard a Surveyor at the same time as a civil engineer because the design survey will also need to meet a set of design requirements. The more the development concept is completed the more concrete the scope of work will be laid out for the Surveyor. Elements including topography, the boundary of the parcel, underground utilities, proposed structure, parking, and lighting are potential elements to be considered in the final deliverable. At the completion of the survey project, a CAD file is provided to civil and structural engineers for engineering designs.

Managing the Expectations

There is a list of essential items that the Client should provide to the Surveyor when ordering an ALTA Survey. This list includes, but is not limited to the following items: full property address, tax parcel number, acreage of the property, Lender requirements and/or Table A item checklist, offering memorandum, additional maps, pictures, certificate names, requested turnaround time, and preferences such as final survey format and color-coding. Having these items in place at the start will help advance the project along.

An ALTA Survey takes multiple steps in production by a team of specialists. The process includes documentation collection, record checking, field visit(s), drafting, reviewing, revision, and certification. When the client provides the correct scope of work, not only does it help the Surveyor allocate adequate resources in making the project successful, it also helps to prevent unnecessary expenses. It is imperative to know that a new set of ALTA guidelines went into effect on February 23, 2021. If you are still going about referring to guidelines prior to the 2021 version, you are likely ordering the wrong scope! Within this chapter, there is a blog about the top changes, “New 2021 ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey Standard– Top Changes”, that you might find helpful.

In addition to ALTA Land Title Surveys, Partner’s Land Surveying practice offers a list of services including Topographic Surveys, Digital Terrain Modeling, Boundary Surveys, Wetlands Locations, Subdivision Plots, and Flood Elevation Certificates. Our team of experts is readily available to assist you with site-specific survey requirements outside of ALTA Survey Standards.