When it is time to order an American Land Title Association (ALTA) Survey, there are Optional Table A items to choose from. Some of these items will significantly increase the cost to produce the ALTA Survey so it’s important to consider the different options available, and understand which will fulfill the various requirements of a real estate transaction. In this blog, I will look at one of the optional ALTA Survey items: utilities.

How to select the Utility option that’s right for you
Almost all lenders require some form of mapping of utilities, but in an ALTA Survey this is not a standard requirement, but an optional one. In the Standard 2011 ALTA Requirements, the Utilities option can be found in “Table A: Optional Survey Responsibilities and Specifications”, under item 11. Within this item, clients can order two different options:

Option 11 (a) is the “location of utilities existing on or serving the surveyed property as determined by observed evidence.” This is the least expensive option for the land surveyor and client. ‘Observed evidence’ (also commonly known as ‘above-ground evidence’) refers to the items that the surveyor is able to see when he conducts his field work. Symbols are used to show various above-ground utility structures – including storm and sanitary manhole covers, water and gas meters and valves, fire hydrants, utility poles, electric boxes, storm outlets and inlets, and others – on the survey map. Underground utility lines are not mapped as part of this option.

The second option 11 (b) uses “observed evidence together with evidence from plans obtained from utility companies or provided by client, and markings by utility companies and other appropriate sources” to map various utilities. The surveyor interprets the data from these sources to establish the location of utility systems, and transfers this information to the ALTA Survey. This is a more comprehensive study that can provide information about below-ground utilities, but it is also more labor intensive – and thus costly.

In today’s world, obtaining maps and other information from utility companies is often a difficult and slow process that can cause significant delays, and often the accuracy of the provided maps can’t be guaranteed.

Importantly, maps from utility companies only show public utilities systems within the right of way of public roads or from secured easements over private lands, and will not show underground utility information for private lines on, over or through any private property. They also may not show the location of any particular utility entrance into the private property. This is because systems outside these areas are considered “private utilities” that are not the responsibility of the utility company.

Many surveyors have the utility companies (or another free service) manually mark underground utilities on the surface by placing flags or using paint to show the location prior to their field visit. The surveyor can then locate these markers in the field, and transfer the positions to the map. While this sounds like a straight-forward solution, there are several issues associated with this that are out of the surveyor’s control. For various reasons, not all States allow utility companies to visually mark their utility systems unless construction is imminent. Also, this method will only map utilities on public rights of way or utility easements. Another issue that comes up frequently is that some utility companies may not mark them or are delayed in marking them until after the field work by the surveyor is complete.

Evidently, accurately mapping underground utility locations can be a challenge: maps provided may not contain all of the utilities, are not guaranteed to be accurate, will not show utilities on private property unless the client provides as-built site plans when the improvements to the property were made, and may not indicate the size, material, or depth of the utility. Contacting the utility companies and marking services, locating these markings, interpreting available maps, and transferring these utilities to the survey map can also add a significant time and cost to the ALTA survey.

Obtaining a reliable Survey Map
Those ordering an ALTA Survey with option 11 should carefully consider, understand, and have realistic expectations as to what utility information will be shown on the survey and its subsequent reliability and additional costs.

A client such as a developer of the property may need to have additional knowledge of utility locations for engineering and other design purposes. They could choose the (11b) option, and also ask for a private utility locator service to mark the utilities in the right of way and along the private property. This is an additional cost, but it is one way for the surveyor to obtain a fairly accurate location of the utilities on the property and within the right of way.

Recognizing difficulty in obtaining a reliable survey map, ALTA and ACSM added the following caveat to item 11b when the Standards were updated in 2011: “However, lacking excavation, the exact location of underground features cannot be accurately, completely and reliably depicted. Where additional or more detailed information is required, the client is advised that excavation may be necessary.” Indeed, there is no quick and easy solution for surveyors to determine the location of utilities. They must do their due diligence in order to exhaust all avenues to get the utilities marked and to get plans from local offices, but sometimes engaging private utility location services or excavation – although costly and time consuming – is the only way to obtain a reliable utilities map.