Point of Beginning

Point of View

May 1, 2006


A wizened man is ailing from a cancerous tumor on his lung. His long-term doctor says the tumor is malignant and must be removed. So the ailing man sits down and writes a scope of surgical services needed and prepares a lengthy RFP replete with AMA standards and specifications. He mails out ten copies of the RFP to ten reputable surgeons, who read it and then prepare cost proposals for the surgical procedure. Approximately one month later, the ailing man receives all ten proposals. He sifts through them, sorting them by cost, utimately awarding the procedure to the surgeon with the lowest cost proposal. The operation takes place one week later, and the man dies on the operating table due to the incompetence of the attending surgeon. The man's wife (now widow) stares at her dearly departed husband in disbelief. She cannot help but wonder if price alone was the best criteria for selecting a surgeon. This scenario, while ludicrous, happens every day in the wonderful world of land surveying (minus the scalpel).

It is no secret that many survey projects are awarded solely on the basis of price. As a result, surveyors have accepted and adapted to a cutthroat market. We buy expensive GPS equipment and robotic total stations in an effort to become more efficient. But instead of profiting from our heightened efficiency, we merely lower our fees to get jobs. When bidding on a survey, many land surveyors ponder whether a one-person crew can do the job. After all, the one-person crew will cost less and enable a bid for a lower fee that offers a better chance of securing the job. Is that really why we paid substantial dollars for that modern equipment: lower fees? I think not. In most industries the fees increase proportionally to the cost of providing the product. So why does the estimable surveyor shoot himself in the foot? Perhaps a loose set of standardized fees would ameliorate this problem? Oh no, I have broached the taboo topic of standardized fees.

A Consideration

Standardized fees-what does that mean? Who sets the standards? Is that legal? I am not proposing that a stringent set of fees should be established for all surveyors to follow. I am sure the Securities and Exchange Commission would frown on such an idea. What I am suggesting is a loose guideline of suggested fee ranges. Of course the fee ranges would vary for different regions of the nation (factoring in cost of living, median wage, etc.). The standardized fee ranges could be openly discussed at annual conventions or monthly chapter meetings of various survey organizations. Any surveyor would have the option to nullify the fee ranges by merely ignoring them.

My postulate is that, in spite of the naysayers, all surveyors would eventually benefit from a system of standardized fee ranges. How many of us know a surveyor who runs business doing $90 mortgage inspections? Besides debasing our profession, those "$90 surveyors" also hurt our bank account. How many times has a potential client gasped in horror upon hearing your cost estimate for a survey? The client's gasp is inevitably followed by a comment explaining how she recently paid only $90 for a "boundary survey." Then we have the daunting task of explaining the difference between a mortgage inspection and a real boundary survey. After listening to our elliptical definition of a boundary survey, the client hangs up and calls the $90 surveyor. Hence the diminution of our profession.

To Attorneys and The Like

All attorneys, paralegals and title agents please exit at this point or proceed with extreme caution. Another common scenario to surveyors involves recertifying an old survey. Many times I have dealt with attorneys asking for a rock-bottom fee to recertify an ALTA survey. After all, it is only a recertification, right? The attorneys bark at me in a peremptory manner as if I must accept a minute fee. Without missing a beat I inquire whether the law firm is charging a minute fee for its work since it closed the same property last year. My flippant inquiry will usually pacify the attorney long enough to explain why the survey fee will NOT be substantially lowered for the recertification. I guess it is sacrilege to inquire about attorney fees but not to scrutinize surveyor fees. We should not sell ourselves short by offering our work at discounted prices no matter what the circumstances may be. The liability we incur for a recertified ALTA is tantamount to the liability of a new ALTA. Also, a field crew must visit the site to note changes (if any) since the original field work was performed. Fees to recertify a survey should be addressed and included when formulating standardized survey fee ranges. I believe a fair fee to recertify an ALTA survey is 60% to 90% of the original survey fee (assuming site conditions have not changed). We are in business to make money not to provide cheap surveys. Only a purblind surveyor gives away his/her intellectual property at discounted prices. Remember, we are professionals and we need to command the same respect given to other professionals.

To Engineers and Architects

Civil engineers are our brothers and architects are our cousins. One thing we are blessed with in the United States is a free capitalist market dictated by such forces as supply and demand. In elementary terms, if supply goes down, the cost goes up (assuming demand remains the same or increases). Why then is it that most engineers and architects charge a higher rate than surveyors? Engineers and architects are simply worth more than surveyors, right? This maxim has always troubled me. I have seen both sides of the fence on this issue because I am a licensed engineer in 15 states as well as a licensed surveyor in three states. My state of residency is Michigan. Michigan's licensure requirements for surveyors are among the strictest in the nation. Michigan only produces a small crop of newly licensed surveyors each year. I know this is the case for most other states as well. However, compared to the number of licensed surveyors nationwide, most states produce an abundant yield of licensed engineers and licensed architects.

So why does the law of supply and demand not push surveyor wages to the top of the pay scale? The answer is simple. Many surveyors do not consider themselves equals to engineers and architects. Being dual licensed, I can repudiate that thought. Today's modern surveyor is highly educated in mathematics, case law, statistics, geodesy and computer programming. We are highly trained in the use of esoteric field equipment such as RTK GPS, DGPS, laser scanning devices and robotic total stations (not to mention the vast number of specialized software programs we have mastered). Yes, my fellow surveyors, it is time to accept the fact that we are now equals with engineers and architects (regardless of current pay scale). Considering the law of supply and demand, a surveyor's pay scale should actually be equal to or higher than that of engineers and architects (gasp). This is merely a stark reality of the capitalist market we enjoy.

A Time for Change?

Several firms I worked for in the past maintained a list of hourly fee rates for all employees. The lists were all categorized by professional status such as EIT, SIT, PE1, PS1, PE2, PS2, etc. One day I studied the lists closely and noticed a strange phenomenon. Every category of engineer had an hourly fee rate $5 higher than every category of surveyor. Was the extra $5 per hour really necessary? Or was the extra $5 merely the result of stubborn engineers unwilling to accept surveyors as their equals? Or is the problem that surveyors allow companies to get away with paying them $5 less? The existing pay scale deficiency between surveyors, architects and engineers could be mitigated through the use of standardized survey fee ranges. Otherwise, the market will run its course and eventually fix the wage deficiency between professions.

Exploring standardized survey fee ranges should not be taboo. Our profession suffers incalculable losses due to the precarious nature of survey fees and the cutthroat tactics of our peers. The losses we suffer are both tangible and intangible. Yes, we definitely feel the losses in our bank accounts, but we also feel a comprehensive loss as our estimable profession is dragged down. My intent in writing this article is not to create a schism among surveyors. Instead, I hope this article promotes constructive dialogue among surveyors. Our profession has advanced greatly over the centuries and decades. Now it is time for our fees to catch up.

Do you agree with Matthew? Have a different point of view? Send your feedback to Editor Lieca N. Hohner at hohnerl@bnpmedia.com. E-mail subject lines should be titled "May issue Point of View."