A new standard for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys is coming in February of 2021, and because just about every commercial real estate transaction requires an ALTA Survey, this is a big deal. ALTA surveys are critical in helping you understand everything that comes along with your prized investment – easements, encumbrances, encroachments and whole lot more. Your investment as depicted on the survey will be insured by the title company. As important as ALTA surveys are, I see clients trip up and order the wrong survey scope all the time, causing delays of schedule and unnecessary costs – and that’s without even having a new survey standard to digest! So, to help you order the correct survey scope and ensure your 2021 transactions go smoothly, I’ve highlighted the key changes in the new standard that you should be aware of. Let’s get prepared!

Firstly, any prior surveys that need updates will need a new field visit on or after Feb. 23, 2021, to meet the new standards. This of course applies to any newly completed surveys on or after this date, too.

Now, as for the changes to the standard itself, the biggest changes are really in the Table A Optional Items, so let’s dive into that.

Changes to Table A Optional Items

In any survey, it’s important to get the right scope for your needs, and Table A Optional items are the vehicle for users to customize their scope by selecting one or more of these predefined optional scopes.  But buyer beware – some Table A items are complex, require extra time and fees, and are prone for miscommunications. That’s nothing new, but what is new in the 2021 standard is that in Table A Note, the instructions now allow for negotiation in wording and fee for any selected item between Surveyor and the Client. This change is problematic, for a few reasons – for one, many clients don’t have a solid understanding of what each Table A item is and the scope entailed, so they may not fully understand the implications of modifying the wording. Also, some clients may try to change the wording after the survey has been contractually engaged, and even a small change in wording can have a big effect on scope. Thus, the negotiation of the wording is highly discouraged! As a good practice, a mutually agreed scope of work and fee is recommended in a written contractual format prior to a field day. Any out-of-scope of services should be discussed and filled out in Table A item 20 (this is the blank Optional Item intended for custom add-ons). The selection of any Table A items is likely to add cost and require additional time. It’s prudent to consult with your Surveyor and clarify the scope early on.

Table A Optional item 11 regarding locating utilities is modified and reduced to two options. Item 11 is the option to locate utilities that are not readily observable by the surveyor in the field (i.e. underground), since readily observable utilities are already part of the minimum ALTA standards. In the 2021 ALTA/NSPS standard, the 811 utility locate option is no longer available because it was not reliable enough for surveys. Now, the client can either provide plans (as-builts or other design plans) or ask the Surveyor to hire someone to get them. Clients need to be prepared ahead of time to do some digging to get the plans or be ready to wait for a new one to be done. With either option, separate field visits, coordination of different utility companies, and extra time allowance are required.

Another big change is that Wetlands mapping is removed from Table A altogether. To many surveyors, this is a welcome change because clients frequently misunderstood this item. The original intention for this item was that if a professional wetlands expert had already been to the site and staked out where wetlands were located, then the surveyor could depict the wetlands on the survey. But many users erroneously thought that they were hiring the surveyor to go and figure out if there were wetlands located on the surveyed property – surveyors do not have this expertise. So now, it is not one of the pre-defined optional add-ons for ALTA surveys anymore. To inquire depicting flagged wetlands on the survey or other scopes of work, one could write it in Table A 20, but again this requires clear communication between the client and surveyor before engagement.

Table A item 18 is regarding appurtenant easements, i.e. off-site easements that benefit the surveyed property. The wording of this item has been clarified here because this was a commonly misunderstood and very expensive add-on. The bottom line is, if you just want the boundaries of appurtenant easements depicted, don’t check this item! It’s already included in the minimum standards. Only check this if you want all the improvements within those appurtenant easements identified. It essentially means that the surveyor will do an additional full ALTA survey on those easements (as well as the surveyed property). This might be relevant for a commercial property with off-site signage, if those improvements are the fee parcel’s responsibility, but beware that it will add significant cost, and the survey can’t be quoted until they know what appurtenant easements exist for the surveyed property.

Changes to the minimum ALTA standard

There are also several changes to the baseline or “minimum” standards.  Essentially all of the changes here are relatively minor, but a couple are worth noting as they add some value to the survey:

Section 5E now requires locating utility poles on or within 10 feet of property and note potential encroachments – a change from 2016 guidelines 5Cii, which required 5 feet perimeters.  This change doesn’t add any cost or time to the process, and acknowledges the fact that overhangs from these utility poles can encroach the surveyed property even if they are greater than 5 feet away.

In Section 6C, new to 2021 guidelines, tax parcel numbers are now required for non-platted, adjoining lands. This change adds value to your surveys with more clarification about the surrounding properties.

If you want an in-depth summary of the changes in the 2021 ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey Standards, I posted a detailed discussion here.

Get your survey done right

In short, exercising good communication and project management in addition to understanding the changes in guidelines will result in high-quality ALTA surveys on time and on schedule! The time investment in building clear expectations at the beginning of the project is key to success. A good Surveyor will help you navigate the guideline changes and be your trusted advisor along the process. To that end – we are hosting a webinar on February 11th to share more guidance on ALTA surveys, how to get the right scope for your needs, and ensure a smooth and successful project.