As always happens, nothing stays the same. On Feb. 23, 2016, both the American Land Title Association (ALTA) and The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) adopted an updated set of survey standards.

Many of the changes are put forward by the Land Title Association to better address their use of a survey tailored to title concerns. One major change is the ability to deliver a digital product from the surveyor to the title company and clients. I think the wording contained in the following purpose (from the standards) sums up “why a title survey.” We are going to better define what doing and being successful in this market is about.

Purpose (from the 2016 standards)

Members of the American Land Title Association (ALTA) have specific needs, unique to title insurance matters, when asked to insure title to land without exception as to the many matters, which might be discoverable from survey and inspection, and which are not evidenced by the public records.

For a survey of real property, and the plat, map or record of such survey, to be acceptable to a title insurance company for the purpose of insuring title to said real property free and clear of survey matters (except those matters disclosed by the survey and indicated on the plat or map), certain specific and pertinent information must be presented for the distinct and clear understanding between the insured, the client (if different from the insured), the title insurance company (insurer), the lender and the surveyor professionally responsible for the survey.

In order to meet such needs, clients, insurers, insureds and lenders are entitled to rely on surveyors to conduct surveys and prepare associated plats or maps that are of a professional quality and appropriately uniform, complete and accurate. To that end, and in the interests of the general public, the surveying profession, title insurers and abstracters, the ALTA and the NSPS jointly promulgate the within details and criteria setting forth a minimum standard of performance for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys. A complete 2016 ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey includes:

(i) the on-site fieldwork required pursuant to Section 5,

(ii) the preparation of a plat or map pursuant to Section 6 showing the results of the fieldwork and its relationship to documents provided to or obtained by the surveyor pursuant to Section 4,

(iii) any information from Table A items requested by the client, and

(iv) the certification outlined in Section 7.

[Copied from ALTA 2016 Standards]

The Difference between an ALTA Survey and Boundary Survey

I hope all licensed surveyors understand what a boundary survey consists of according to their state standards (it’s not the same in all states). While the ALTA Standards contain a boundary survey, it includes many other pieces of information. This information is important to title companies that use this information to issue title insurance policies on property. I have been told many times by surveyors that the client does not need an ALTA survey as my survey contains all the information they will ever need. This shows the complete lack of understanding by some surveyors on what an ALTA survey consists of and how it is used. Note the word “inspection” is used in the above purpose of standard. This is a word we don’t use much in surveying, but is a very important part of an ALTA survey.

Call for the ALTA Survey

We at ACSM/NSPS did not start the ALTA survey process, but we were contacted by the American Land Title Association to develop standards together that a title company could depend on to issue title insurance. These standards have developed over the years to best suit the title industry needs.

The new 2016 standards address a long-time problem for the surveyors, namely, sending out all the copies of the survey for review before completion. This can now be done on the Internet in digital form that will quicken the completion process and save everyone money.

The final product can also be delivered in digital format.

Another improvement is to standardize language through the document using the same wording for operations such as “fieldwork.” I believe this set of standards will have a long shelf life, as most of the important issues are covered in the 2016 version.

Who Does ALTA Surveys?

Not all surveyors perform ALTA surveys. Some companies provide this service as part of their work and a few companies only provide ALTA surveys.

Let’s talk first about the companies that do not provide this service. They are missing the boat for a number of reasons. For the most part, these surveys pay better than a regular survey, mainly because the clients want more information. One problem is you may have to wait 30 to 60 days to get the invoice paid because you have to wait until the deal is completed. Companies that do a lot of ALTA surveys have better trained field crews and the latest technology. This is because many of these surveys may be over a larger geographic area and the crew have to understand what it takes to have complete fieldwork, because you can’t keep running back to the site.

Companies that provide some ALTA surveys when requested could provide more of these surveys if they understood more about how to acquire these surveys. Many of these surveys come from attorneys that work in the real estate field. Many of the surveys are not connected with a sale but rather refinancing a property.

Most ALTA surveys are grouped together in packages of as few as two or three to over 100. If you get a call about doing an ALTA survey in your area, the first thing to ask is how many do you have in your state. You might just be able to do them all. What most of these clients want is a lump-sum price per each site. I think you can see if you could do 20 sites it would turn into a sizeable job.

The companies that tend to specialize in ALTA surveys deliver hundreds per year. They also contract out some to other companies in areas where they are not registered. The biggest problem is they want to get you to bid against other companies for the work. This is unethical and illegal in my state and many other states. The best thing is don’t get involved in this situation.

The Dream Job

Sometimes an ALTA survey will come along that is a major project. This could be a large industrial or commercial site. Working out the fee for this job can be very difficult. The seller that is paying for the survey wants to get the survey as cheap as possible and the buyer wants almost all the items in schedule “A.” Work hard to negotiate this job. Someone is going to do the survey. Don’t be scared off by a short time frame for delivery. Another company may not be able to complete the project any faster than you can. Keep in mind deadlines tend to slip as others involved can’t make the deadline any better than your company.

Getting Started

Attend an ALTA standard workshop or print out the 2016 standards from the NSPS website. If you are doing some ALTA work, remember only the 2016 standard is the official standard. If you provide an ALTA survey from a standard from any other date than 2016, it is not an official ALTA survey.