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How to “Survey” Your Own Land

by Neil Shelton

Excerpted from Neil's latest book, LandBook, The small landowner's guide to buying, improving, maintaining and selling rural land.

Disclaimer: Warning! 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 Engineering.  

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 coffee-stained napkin.

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:

  • A compass

  • A calculator

  • Maps and aerial photographs: everything pertinent that you can find

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, 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.

Continued on page 2   >


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