Property Lines 101: Speak the Same Language During a Dispute

Settle property line disputes armed with the correct documents. We’ll tell you what they are and how they protect your property line.

A property line is an invisible perimeter with very real consequences. Before pounding in fence posts, planting mighty oaks, or bumping out your kitchen, make sure you know where your property lines are located.

Knowing where your property begins and ends can help you avoid boundary disputes -- and feuds -- with the neighbors.

Must-Know Terms

Property line terms often are used incorrectly and interchangeably, causing confusion and wasting time when settling a dispute. Here are definitions that will let you and your neighbor speak the same language.

Property line: This border defines a piece of land and is the subject of your dispute.

Survey (aka boundary survey or property survey): A study and sketch or map of land elevations, improvements, boundaries, structures (sometimes), and orientation to neighbors that is the last word on your property line. If you don’t already have a survey--previous owners may have given you one at settlement--you’ll need one to prove your property line location.

Plat: A drawing that represents the survey--elevations, bodies of water, walkways, driveways--and indicates approximate property line locations.

Record plat: Recorded in government offices, it indicates boundaries, environmental easements (rights of way for water, sewer, gas lines) and conservation buffers (wetlands--can’t touch; flood hazard areas--can’t build). If you’ve lost your plat, you can get a record plat online to help show property boundaries.

House location drawing: This drawing shows how your house is situated on the land and its distance from property lines. Title insurance companies and lenders usually require a house location drawing to check property sizes. They’re not as detailed as plats, but surveyors produce them.

How to Find Your Property Lines

Locate your plat or house location drawing. Look in your settlement file or the place where you keep important papers. If you’ve lost these documents, download a record plat free from your county’s land records office, county clerk, or tax assessor’s office.

Hunt for stakes. On some properties, particularly those more recently developed, you may be able to find markers from when the property was originally divided. Walk your property line and find the tops of the wood or steel stakes that surveyors pounded into the ground to outline borders. Some stakes will stick up from the ground, but most will be flush so they don’t break lawn mowers. Surveyors and fence companies use electronic stake locators, but they cost $2,000. 

Commission a survey. The surest way to establish your property lines is to commission a survey ($500 to $2,000) conducted by a land surveyor or civil engineering company. This is a complete look at your property to establish who owns what. If your dispute ever goes to court, this survey will be evidence of your claim.

Surveyors will:

  • Research the history of your land--subdivisions, easements, and ecological restrictions.
  • Measure property using an electronic theodolite (hi-tech surveyors’ compass) that collects data on elevations, distances, and directions. Surveyors’ jargon for angles and distances is metes and bounds.
  • Stake corners of a property, sometimes adding stakes along boundaries that are not straight.
  • Present a plat created with computer software. Your settlement attorney can record the plat with a deed after closing, or you can record it later. Keep the plat with important records; you’ll have to present it to the bank if you refinance or sell your home.


Ann Cochran
Ann Cochran

Ann Cochran has written about home improvement and design trends for Washingtonian, Home Improvement, and Bethesda Magazine.