Hiring a Surveyor

I recently hired a surveyor to figure out exactly where my property lines were.  I’m in Seattle, Washington in the USA–this is about my experiences here.  Your experiences may be a little different in other states, and a lot different in other countries.

The hiring process involved a couple of false starts and some confusion.  I finally found a good surveyor, but I learned a lot about how the process works and how one might shop around for a good survey at a good price.

When I was first getting quotes for a survey I was shocked at the price difference–it was between about $1500 and $5000 for the same quoted work.  That’s a big difference!

Between some of my own poking around in the county property records and chatting with my surveyor I figured out that you want to hire a surveyor that’s worked near your property before.  I’ll explain a little more about why this is and then explain how you can figure out which surveyors have worked in your neighborhood before.

How Surveyors Work

The government (federal, state, etc.) maintains a number of survey monuments–these are documented, fixed points from which a surveyor calculates distances and angles to figure out your property lines (there’s lots of information about this elsewhere).  But here’s the key–surveyors don’t work directly off the monuments if they don’t have to.  Monuments tend to be in inconvenient places like the middle of the road.

So when a surveyor comes to a neighborhood for the first time they will usually use the monuments to establish their own “control” points.  Then they use these to do the actual survey.  If they come back to the area later for another survey, they can reuse these control points instead of having to work from the monuments in the middle of the road.  My surveyor (in 2017) said he used some control points that had put down several years before when he was doing a survey in the neighborhood.

The cost of a survey is generally related to how much work the surveyor has to do to find good control points.

How to See Surveys from your Neighborhood

This is the hard and frustrating part.

Surveys are often (usually?) recorded with whoever handles property records in your area (“recording” is a process of filing an official document with the government to make it a public record).  Here in Washington state property records are handled by the Recording Office of the county the property is located in.

Basically you want to search for recorded surveys near your property–survey maps always show the date and name of the surveyor.  You want to find a surveyor that’s worked near your property recently.

Seattle is in King County, and our Recorder’s Office has a web search. I think most counties do these days.

To start, you need to find the “legal description” of your property.  You can generally find this on your deed.

From here there’s a lot of trial and error involved in finding records near you.  Your legal description will generally show subdivision (usually some sort of fancy name like “lake front addition”) and block–you can search on this but it’s a pretty small area.  When I use the King County records tool I select “advanced legal” search type to be able to search on these fields (and the ones I mention later here).  You also want to select “map” for document category.

King County has a “parcel viewer” that lets you get some extra information that can help in a search (http://gismaps.kingcounty.gov/parcelviewer2/).  You can plug your address in here, drill down to property details, and get the quarter-section-township-range of your property.  This gives a much larger area to search for.  Note that leading zeroes matter for this kind of search (i.e. the parcel viewer might say range “4” but you want to search on “04”.

The quarter-section-township-range search  is good (if it doesn’t produce too many results) but if you’re on the corner of one of these areas you’ll miss nearby surveys.  You may have to dig into plat maps to figure out the search terms.  In king county you can get a plat map of your area by plugging your parcel number (available from your property tax bill or the parcel viewer above) into this site:


Side note:  I noticed the quarter search in king county records is odd–a quarter is actually pretty big so the search allows you to search by quarter of a quarter.  e.g. if you’re in the NE corner of NE-24-23-03, you would search for NE-NE as the quarter.  My property was NE-NE, but I was on the south boundary, so I had to search for NE-SE to find a survey for my neighbor’s property to the south.
I also found if I just searched for quarter NE I got one result–changing the search to NE-NE produced many more.

So…this part will be the most time consuming and frustrating, but eventually you should end up with a few surveys done on your block, hopefully within the least ten years or so.  The survey will generally show the name and contact info of the entity that did it.

When you contact the surveyor, it might not hurt to mention that they’ve worked your neighborhood before, say something like, “I also see from public records that your firm did a survey for the property two houses down from me in 2008”.  This might get your quote moved to the top of the pile since they know it will be easier to look in their own records and come up with a quote.