Specialized Buyers Agent Answers Real Estate Questions
Q. We are moving to your area and buying what will be our third home. Many of the lots are not regularly shaped and we keep asking where the lot lines are but our agent purports not to be able to tell us exactly. What’s with that? Other places we bought had plats with dimensions and it was very clear. R. and P. Boura, San Francisco, CA
A. Welcome to the world of William Penn and old property records. By a strange quirk in practice, most home buyers in our state do not obtain a survey of their property and many do not know exactly where the lots lines run. Particularly in the case of older properties not in a subdivision, this can create issues. My experience is that these line uncertainties cause great concern to homeowners even thought the actual harm is often not that great.
But why no surveys? Because the lenders in PA do not require them as a condition to lending. Why not? Because Pennsylvania title insurers have traditionally provided insurance to the LENDER ONLY against this risk at no additional charge. They assume, I guess, that a lender’s position would not be harmed by a claim involving a line dispute, so they “insure over’ this possibility. Owners have to pay a premium for the same protection.
The alternative, to have a survey undertaken, is usually considered too costly. Further, surveyors are fairly busy folks and need a while to complete a survey, time that most sellers are not willing to wait. The normal contingency period between signing an agreement and completing the inspection and other due diligence is 10-15 days, not enough time for a survey to be obtained in most cases.
My clients sometimes ask me (because I am a lawyer) to read their legal description from their deed and tell them where the lot lines run. I have to tell them that I can approximate the distances and corners based on the words, but that no one but a surveyor can be sure (unless you can find old iron pins in the ground) because the beginning point is often in the middle of the road and it takes surveying equipment to find it.
Be aware that the standard form of agreement of sale does not protect a buyer from inaccurate descriptions of lot lines or acreage, etc. unless it is specifically mentioned in an addendum. All representations from public records and the marketing information in the listing materials are deemed erased by the agreement’s terms under the “integration” clause. So if it really matters to you that you are buying 3 acres or the big chestnut tree is part of your lot, it needs to be spelled out.
If you are not planning to put in a fence, though, you may not really need to know exactly where your lot lines are. I am guessing that will bother a lot of people, but there are many folks in Pennsylvania who have no idea where their land begins and ends. It has been that way for decades. I wish surveyors would come up with a “quick survey” option at a reasonable price so we could start to remedy this issue.
So buy the home you love after asking the neighbors where they think the lines are and do a survey at your leisure.