Danger! Peligro! If you are a licensed, professional
land-surveyor, reading this article may be a threat to your health
and well-being as it contains enough estimates, approximations and
out-and-out guesses as to risk inducing headaches, vomiting and/or
hypertension in individuals trained in the exacting science of Civil
If, on the other hand,
you are a typical homesteader, you may find that this article, if
used judiciously, may give you the ability to measure your land and
locate your boundaries to a vague, kinda-sorta accuracy without
costing you one red cent.
The profession of land surveying is a challenging discipline
requiring years of training, a thorough knowledge of complicated
mathematics, and a careful and painstaking personality. This is as
it should be, because it is no exaggeration to say that the ability
to pin-point and measure areas on the face of the earth is at least
as important as any other advanced skill mankind has developed. Sometimes a matter of only a few inches can determine whether
extremely valuable assets such as water wells and other major
improvements are located on one’s property, or on that of a
neighbor. For these reasons, obtaining an accurate survey of a
parcel of land is usually neither cheap nor fast, and there is
absolutely no substitute for a full survey of one’s land done by a
professional surveyor and recorded at the County Recorder’s Office.
Many times though, a landowner may find himself in need of a quick
guess; an educated estimate of where the precise boundaries of any
given property lie. Over the years, I’ve learned a few techniques,
and developed a few of my own, that allow me to make what I hope we
could call an intelligent guess about property lines. I’ve always
referred to this as “hafast surveying”. You may want to use a more
graceful term if you can think of one. Practitioners must always
remember that the goal of hafast surveying is the reasonable
approximation. What professional surveying is to a Monet or a
Rembrandt, hafast surveying is to a grease-pencil sketch on a
If you have a reasonably correct legal description of the subject
property using the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) and a few simple
tools, then you can get a very good idea of the approximate size and
location of your rural property.
Here’s what you’ll need:
First, let’s suppose that you know where one corner of the property
is, and you want to find the back line. Let’s also say that your
property is a rectangular twenty acres like the one in the first
photo below. Such twenties as this are the most common form of
twenty-acre parcel, usually described as ½ of a ¼ of a ¼ section. It
will have a nominal size of 660 feet by 1320 feet. (If you’re
already getting confused, maybe you should first read,
How to Read Legal Descriptions, which waltzes you through the basics
of land description.)
[BELOW] This photo shows the 20 acres we want to locate. The arrow
points to one corner that we’re pretty sure of, which is where we’ll
begin our “survey”.
Since most properties in rural America are laid out using PLSS, the
first thing we need to know is where the closest established line
can be found. A pretty-good (a/k/a hafast) way to do this is by
using aerial photography.
In days gone by, you could get aerial photos from the U.S.
Conservation Service simply by paying an outlandish fee, and
spending a few weeks following ridiculous governmental protocol.
Nowadays however, you can locate the same photos and better for
free. (Free, that is, on your computer monitor, you still have
to pay for hard copies.)
U.S.G.S topography maps are available at the U.S.G.S online store at
www.store.usgs.gov, for sale on paper, or free in Adobe .pdf format.
[BELOW] See the patterns? Most of the single squares are 40-acre
tracts that we can easily discern from this altitude. While
one has to watch for jogs and extended sections using this
technique, it’s still a good way to confirm where boundary lines run
in your neighborhood.
In these instances (the
photos above and below) I chose to use older maps from the U.S.
Conservation Service because like many of their black-and-white
images, the one of the property I'm interested in was taken during
the winter months, and it shows ground details like trails and roads
that may be obscured by foliage in the summer months.
(U.S.C.S. photos also tend to be older than Google Earth® images,
and there are times when it’s helpful to see what things might have
been like a few years before.) Google Earth® also offers you
historical images so that you can see aerials of the property of
interest from several years ago. Often, the oldest of these
images were taken by and for U.S. Conservation Service.
The first step in locating the property should be to step back (zoom
out) and take a long view of the area. Unless the neighborhood
is composed exclusively of very large parcels, we should be able to
discern a grid-work of the PLSS system such as you see in Figure 7.
(In this example, I had to go two or three miles from my subject
property to find obvious property lines to follow, so the scale
makes for some rather small images.)
[BELOW] This lower-altitude view shows the convergence of the lines
that we drew on the higher-elevation view, confirming that the spot
which we guessed was our corner is indeed so.
What I've done here is locate what are obviously accepted boundary
lines in the general neighborhood that share common boundary lines
with the property I'm interested in.
In Figures 7 and 8, I've found two of the boundaries of the parcel
by this method, then I've marked them with blue lines. If you
can find two perpendicular sides of a property, you’re halfway home
in confirming the location of the corner you want to start with.
This step isn't always necessary if you've already got an idea of
where one corner is, but it's nice to confirm that everything
appears to be in order.
Next, I find the same corner in Google Earth® and, using the ruler
function, which I've set to “path” I'll measure out the other two
boundaries, and with that, I’ve got the boundary lines closed in.
[BELOW] Here’s the corner we’ve located for our starting point.
Looks like an old fence-row with trees growing in it.
Next, I look for landmarks on my photo which are clear enough that I
can locate them both on the aerial photo and on the ground.
It’s preferable for these to be at the corner of the property if
possible, so as to avoid further measuring, but if you can find
something that’s only along a boundary but not at a corner, you may
be able to measure from there back to the corner.
In my example (Figure 9) I’ve found a line of trees that look like
something we’ll be able to recognize on the ground, but small enough
to recognize as our corner when we arrive there in the real world.