ALTA vs Topographic Surveys: Which One Do I Need?

If you’re involved in any facet of real estate, whether it be development, architecture, commercial, residential, engineering, or lending, it’s more than likely you’re already familiar with some form of survey. But knowing which survey you need for the particular project you’re working on can be confusing and depends on several elements. Each survey type, based on the complexity, can range drastically in cost and the length of time to complete.

Starting Simple: Boundary Surveys

If you just need the basics, a simple boundary survey may suffice. This type of survey plots out the boundary lines of a parcel of land and is used most frequently when buying or selling residential property.

Clearly showing where a property ends and where it begins, simple boundary surveys can help keep improvements from encroaching onto neighboring properties.

The More Complex Boundary Survey: ALTA

An ALTA Survey, technically also a boundary survey, is a detailed report performed by a registered licensed surveyor and must be prepared in accordance with the standards specified by the American Land Title Association (ALTA). While an ALTA survey also shows parcel boundaries, it will include all property improvements and easements and their location. An ALTA survey is instrumental in identifying any potential risks related to the property. Types of elements you can expect to see in an ALTA survey can include:

· Fences

· Utility Lines (above and below ground utilities)

· Roads

· Improvements

· Other Buildings + Structures

· Boundary Lines (and any related disputes)

· Encroachments

· Easements

· Zoning Restrictions

· Flood Zone Areas

· Legal Routes to Access Property

· Water Boundaries

· Evidence of Cemeteries

· Any other conditions not found in public records.

You can also expect an ALTA survey to include a legal description of the property along with any related preliminary research. They are designed and required to be highly precise with the intention of protecting everyone involved in the project and ultimately ensuring its longterm success.

So, What About a Topographic Survey?

A topographic survey, while also critical to a project’s success, differs from an ALTA survey in that it measures the elevation of a land’s surface. Frequently used by engineers and architects, topographic surveys serve as great foundational maps, or reference points, at the start of a development, and typically include the following elements:

· Trees

· Buildings

· Streets

· Walkways

· Manholes

· Utility Poles

· Gas Lines

· Lakes

· Fences

· Wells

· Drainage

· Valleys

· Hills

· Retaining Walls

A topographic survey identifies and locates all man-made and natural physical features on the property and helps designers accurately show any potential zoning or agency-required setbacks.

Which Survey Do I Need? ALTA vs. Topographic

When it comes to determining which survey your project requires, an accepted rule of thumb is that an ALTA survey is needed when purchasing land, and a topographic survey is needed when planning construction.

Purchasing commercial property? You definitely need an ALTA.

Selling commercial property? You should get an ALTA to defend against any claims.

Developing land? You need both.

The cost of these surveys depends largely on the size and complexity of the property and envisioned project. ALTA surveys tend to be the costliest as they require substantial research, fieldwork, measurements, and documentation and can take weeks or months to complete.

Survey with SEG

The Surveying Services team at Sustainability Engineering Group have the experience and municipal connections you need to get an ALTA or topographic survey done in the fastest amount of time with the most quality result.

Time and time again, we see a huge cost benefit realized to our clients that take advantage of this offering due to reduced site plan revisions, and they can rest easy knowing we’ve identified and are managing any issues related to the development.

Learn more about SEG’s Surveying Services here:


SEG was founded as a leader in sustainable civil engineering site design. Since its formation in 2009, SEG has completed nearly 200 land developments.

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SEG Engineering

SEG was founded as a leader in sustainable civil engineering site design. Since its formation in 2009, SEG has completed nearly 200 land developments.