As far as boundary surveying goes, there are three different types of boundary surveys; original surveys, retracement surveys, and surveys based upon the record.  The difference between the three types are as follows:

Original Survey

The term "original survey" was first derived from a survey of land grants from the United States Government,  or through the United States Public Land Survey (USPLS), or other entities which first created, marked and documented the boundary of lands.  Today in essence, an original survey is the first documented survey of a parcel(s) of land that is created by any legal entity such as the government, a corporation, a private business, or by a private individual.

Retracement Survey

A retracement survey is one in which a Professional Land Surveyor "retraces" the boundaries of an original survey.  This a common type of survey performed today.  This type of survey is based upon the legal records of land (deeds, titles, plats, etc.) that have boundary descriptions and drawings that are prepared from the original survey.  The Retracement Surveyor must use these public records as well as private records and field evidence to determine the location of the original parcel boundary lines, as originally marked on the ground by the original survey.  The Retracement Surveyor must figuratively “follow in the steps of the original surveyor”.

Survey Based Upon the Record

A survey based upon the record is one in which a Professional Land Surveyor attempts to mark on the ground the boundaries of a parcel of land that has been previously described and conveyed, but was not marked on the ground by an original survey when the parcel was created.  This type of survey is also common today.  This type of survey is also based upon the legal records of land, but these records have boundary descriptions prepared without the benefit of an original survey.  In most cases the boundary description was written up without actually going on the ground to view and/or mark the boundary corners.  Sometimes landowners would place markers based on where they think, or agree with a neighbor, where the corners of the parcel are.  The surveyor in this case must use these public records as well as private records to determine the intent of the original grantor (seller), and locate any evidence on the ground that will reveal the intent of the original creator of the boundary description.  The surveyor in this case must act like a private investigator at getting to the intent of the original parties who defined the boundaries of the parcel on paper.

A common problem in retracement surveys and surveys based upon the record is that in the modern world we have equipment that is far superior to that used in the past.  In the early years of surveying in the United States, surveyors did their measurements with a compass or transit and a “chain” (predecessor to the steel tape made of thick wire links).  Compasses and transits measured angles at much lower precisions than today’s equipment, and measuring distances with chains required pulling (or stretching) the chain (which measured 66 feet or four rods) along the boundary lines being measured.  Measuring distance is now done with electronic distance measuring equipment (EDM’s). For the most part old methods produced measurements accurate enough for that time period, but not accurate enough for today’s regulatory requirements and land costs.  In adverse mountainous terrain, like we have in Western North Carolina, the precision would be obviously lower due to the challenges of the terrain.  With today's modern equipment (Total Stations, Global Positioning Systems, etc.) surveyors are able to measure horizontal and vertical angles and distances over much greater distances with much less effort and obtaining more reliable and precise results.

Can a modern day land surveyor be an original surveyor?  

 Yes, absolutely! Anytime a parcel of land is subdivided into more parcels (i.e. a subdivision), that surveyor becomes the "original surveyor" of the newly created parcels.  All documented and set corners become original monuments of that survey.

Modern Surveys versus Original Surveys

Are you wondering what prevails in a boundary survey now that our modern day equipment is more precise?  A well known legal boundary principle used by Professional Land Surveyors, but not so well known by the public, is that the original corners by law have no error in them. So what does this mean?   Let us illustrate by an example:

Let us say that in the early 1900's an original parcel of land was surveyed and two monuments (boundary corner marks) were set defining one boundary line of the parcel.  Using the equipment of their time, the surveyors measured 1,500 feet between the monuments.  A modern day "retracement surveyor" is hired to survey the same boundary line with today's modern equipment.  The surveyor observes the distance between the monuments to be 1,450 feet.  If by documentation and professional judgment, the monuments are believed to be the undisturbed "ORIGINAL" corners, then the difference between the older survey and the new survey is attributed to the difference in measuring method used today compared to when the parcel was originally surveyed and thus normally the position of the original monuments will prevail.  Boundary law principles state that there is no error in the original corners.

This does not necessarily mean that all original corners set are absolute.  In another example: Let us assume that you own a parcel of land that has been created and an original survey was performed.  Thus your boundary line was established and marked on the ground.  A property owner next to you hires a land surveyor to do an original survey for a subdivision of their property.  The adjoiner's surveyor sets some property corner marks for the subdivision inside your established property line causing an encroachment.  Have you lost some of your property?  Fortunately you have not under most circumstances.  Original corners set in the subdivision cannot supersede the existing prior rights of adjoining property owners.  This is a boundary legal principle known as Senior Rights.  Boundary legal principles such as this that have been established by court case law normally prevent this type of taking of land.

However, there are situations when a landowner can lose some or all of their right to a parcel of land.  A boundary legal principle known as "adverse possession" may affect your rights as a land owner.  The best thing to do as a property owner is to know your boundaries, have a recent  survey completed if necessary,  know the boundary legal principles involved, and protect the boundaries of your property!


Can a Land Surveyor Give You Legal Advice on Boundaries?

Although a Professional Land Surveyor is considered an expert in the “science and art” of land surveying, he or she must not give legal advice.  No land surveyor should ever give legal advice to a client.  A lawyer should be consulted for legal issues on property and/or boundary line disputes.  A lawyer may then consult with a Professional Land Surveyor on the issue and may call upon them in court as an expert witness.


Written by: David Ivey P.L.S.
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Edited by: Peter Messier, PLS,

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David Ivey
PLS, Vice President, Website Admin.

Email: d_ivey@frontier.com

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So how many "Norths" are there? Not all north arrows are created equally! Here are a few "Norths" that are used in surveying:

Magnetic north - North established by the use of a compass. Due to the fact that the Earth's magnetic field is ever changing, magnetic north changes over the course of time.

True north (astronomic north) - True north can be established by observing celestial bodies (normally the sun or the star Polaris). True north remains constant and does not change over time.

Geodetic north - Sometimes incorrectly called true north. Geodetic north passes through the mean poles of the Earth. The Earth slightly wobbles as it rotates on its axis, creating a minuscule difference between true north and geodetic north.

Grid North - Grid north is an established direction based on a map projection. There are two map projections used in the United States, Lambert and Transverse Mercator. Grid north can easily be determined with the use of modern survey grade G.P.S. equipment.

Other "Norths" that surveyors may find or use are; plat north, deed north, record north, assumed north and site north. Most of these are derived from one of the types of north listed above.

Different Types of North

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Professional Land Surveyors
Providing all your land surveying needs in Western North Carolina
Cullowhee, North Carolina     Phone: (828) 293-3258

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Information on Boundary Surveying