Solo Notes: Surveyor Welcomes Profession's Unpredictability
Since the age of 5, Thomas Smith has been involved with surveying at some capacity. That marks 35 years in the industry, which started with his late father, a career civil engineer and land surveyor, putting him right to it. “It’s my life’s work,” Smith says. As the owner of Thomas S. Smith, LLS, Land Surveying and Mapping, Smith services the whole of New Hampshire as a licensed land surveyor. He works alongside his wife Kimberly, a licensed septic designer. What Smith says he loves most about remaining independent in the surveying profession is that it never gets boring. “Any given day I never know where I’m going to be or what I’m going to do.”
POB: Explain what you do.
SMITH: What seems to be the biggest part of my work is property boundary retracement. Trying to find lost or unknown boundaries is very common up here in northern New Hampshire. There are a lot of wooded mountainous parcels, a lot of big acreage, and over the years people don’t seem to keep up with their boundary lines, especially since 100-years-plus ago people really knew where their boundaries were because they were working their property. Now, they’ve just turned into big wooded lots and wild land, so that’s where I usually come into the picture. So, we do a lot of that, but on the same side, too, we do a lot of subdivisions and lot line adjustments. That seems to be the bulk of the work. I do get into construction layout, but that’s only if somebody really needs it because a lot of construction companies nowadays figured out if they buy the equipment they can do it themselves. But we did just complete a big construction project for a water coaster for an amusement park. We do a little bit of everything. That’s the thing I like about the job; I never know what’s going to come around the corner and sometime it’s just too tempting to turn away. I like to pride myself on the boundary retracements. That’s the part I find very interesting. I tell people if you don’t find looking for and reading all of these deeds interesting, you’re not going to make it in this business because that’s where the bulk of the work is, aside from the mathematics.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
SMITH: I enjoy if I can get a 100-plus-year-old deed call on something people haven’t seen since then. If I can go out and find the boundaries, that, to me, is like a big treasure hunt. I’ve found some pretty interesting ones over the years that have really changed how people looked at how their property may have gone or may go. It’s all based on interpretation of these old, horribly written deeds. You’ve almost got to think just like they did back in the day. You’ve got to kind of be humble and don’t discount anything immediately. It’s like a big puzzle. You’ve just got to kind of decide and put everything together and, all of a sudden, all it takes is that one thing to put it all into perspective. That, to me, is the most rewarding part.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from the field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
SMITH: In recent history, back in 2012, I took on, at that point in time, probably the biggest piece of property I’d ever taken on myself as far as start to finish. That was roughly a 428-acre old farm survey. Up here in northern New Hampshire, things can be mountainous, they can be flat, they can be everything in one piece of property. This one had a number of problems to it. We were trying to square this away for a title company, because it was going to change hands from a widowed farmer’s wife to other people. The descriptions on these parcels were pretty old. We had 100-acre discrepancy for what the town said they had to what the deed said they had. It was quite a project. It took me a couple of months of slowly working on it to decipher it. Along with it, the title company wanted to account for every problem in all of this deed work, so it was many nights of ripping my hair out at midnight in my office trying to figure this out, but we got it. There were no problems in the end; it all made sense and cleared up a few problems that were looming on it for many years. So, that was one of my favorites.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
SMITH: The biggest challenges are keeping up with the extensive workload when times are busy and surviving the slow times during some of the winters we have. It seems to be all or none in this business. Right now is probably the busiest I’ve ever been this spring. It’s just every day something new comes in and you’ve just got to be honest with yourself and honest with the potential clients. If too busy, I just can’t be afraid to tell them I may get to them in a month, but we will get to them and assure them that within a timeframe we can at least get started. I’ve had no problem with that. Everybody seems to be pretty happy, but at the same time, too, I’m honest with them and I always try to follow up with a phone call once in a while to my clients to keep them aware of the progress we’re making. But in the wintertime when things are really slow or can be slow, you’ve got to prepare for that. Right now, I’m thinking about how to prepare for winter already. Since I started my own business back in 2008, I had a couple winters where it was a learning curve, but we survived it. You’ve just got to keep looking forward.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
SMITH: I highly encourage it. Kids today aren’t going into it and part of me thinks it’s a matter of they just want to sit behind a computer screen all day and they don’t want to get out and do the work that we do because a lot of the days it’s not really glorious. You’re out in the cold weather, you’re out in the hot weather, you’re pulling ticks off of you every day. It’s not a quick business to get into and expect to be successful at right away. I tell people it’s a labor of love and you’ve got to commit pretty much your life to it if you want to stay in it and be good at what you do. But at the same time, too, any efforts that are put into it you’re going to get back, but you’ve got to stick with it. I’ve been at this for a lot of years. I never thought I would be an owner years ago when I was a kid. It took me a long time to get to where I am now and I’m still climbing. You’ve just got to take it all in stride and always be willing to learn more information because you’re never going to know it all.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
SMITH: I’m always looking at what the local people are using, what the companies are upgrading to. It all depends on the area you’re in, too. It seems like in today’s world everybody’s talking about real-time GPS, which is a phenomenal tool in the right areas. Unfortunately up here in northern New Hampshire, not very versatile — not at this point in time — because our tree cover does not make for ideal conditions for that type of equipment. In my opinion, there’s still no replacement for the total station up here. Just recently, I upgraded to a new total station. I had an old unit that I scrounged up for when I started my business, but I was able to upgrade to a brand new unit that was still a two-man show, but just recently I upgraded to a robotic total station and that has allowed me to do stuff that I never could do before. Now it just makes me more versatile, and the element of time is just so much better now. But it’s a pricey investment. Right now, it’s about a $20,000-$25,000 investment to do that, but looking back two or three years ago it was double that. I hesitated at first, but I did it and I’m glad I did. I found the fit for it and it pays for itself. You can’t be afraid to spend the money in this business to stay in it. Since 2008, I’ve probably spent in excess of $100,000 in order to get what I have now to be efficient at what we do. Part of that was purchasing a prior business that went into retirement here a few years ago, a local company. Along with that came their records and a few clients. So, that was scary, where you barely have the money to survive and all of a sudden you’re purchasing somebody else’s business.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
SMITH: It’s changed a lot. I think back 30-35 years ago, when I had first exposure to it as a little kid working with my father. We were using transit and tape in those days. Not many people can say they’ve used those nowadays. At that point in time, one of my jobs was to keep the tape oiled. I’ve seen it progress from that and four-man crews to the highest-tech digital equipment and one-man shows. So, really in such a short time that I’ve seen it, it’s amazing how it’s progressed. It’s quite exciting, to be honest. As far as the future goes in it, it’s weird. I see the technology coming up and I see it makes the job so much easier compared to what I remember, but nobody’s going into it. I tell them, “You haven’t seen hard until you’ve pulled steel tape.” We’ve got it so easy now compared to when my father did it. I just can’t imagine doing it that way ever again, but it’s good to know. I have familiarity in it and it influences my decisions on some of these deed calls, because I see a lot of people who have interest in this, they’ll be doing these deed retracements, and they’re hung up on the mathematics so bad because something is off a few feet. But look how they did it back in those days! Can you blame them for being off a few feet when they’re out there dragging a chain or flopping a rod around? It’s good to realize how they did things back in those days, so you can formulate an accurate decision for something that still stands, because we’re out there to retrace the original surveyor’s footsteps.
Thomas Smith, LLS, primarily focuses on property retracement, but does pretty much anything related to land surveying as an independent businessman in the wilds of northern New Hampshire. “Everything I’ve done has been a formulated decision,” he says, “and 99 percent of them have worked out good.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Associate Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.