Earlier this month I spent a few days as an exhibitor at the annual conference of the Land Surveyors’ Association of Washington’s (LSAW).  While there I was fortunate to meet Curtis Sumner the Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). Curt hosts a weekly web radio program for the nation’s survey community. [The link immediately proceeding will allow you to hear archived shows.]

Lucky for me, Curt noted that there was an extra Monday in March which he had yet to fill and he invited me to be on his program this morning. Below are some comments which I had sent to him on the 20th prior to our confirming conversation and today’s radio program.

Hi Curtis –

I just listened to your Feb. 3 program with Jeff Lucas, Gary Kent, and Bruce Blair. That program about the future of surveying titled “Ensuring the American Dream (of land ownership)” has helped me focus and pull together a number of thoughts which I’ll try to outline here.

First, there is a program in Washington State which allows limited representation – so real estate agents can do legal work. Second, though not willing to offer percentages, many attorneys and judges don’t have anything near the understanding of real property law – let alone the knowledge of everything else associated – as do surveyors. Third, boundary disputes are prohibitively expensive to adjudicate for everyone (i.e. the neighbors and the courts – which beyond the opportunity cost of dealing with an important conflict of course otherwise means every taxpaying citizen).

So, it seems that legally expanding the scope so that surveyors don’t just render their opinion as to the location of the titled line, but also may serve in a “limited legal” capacity to sort out the solutions to prevent a boundary dispute would be ideal.

There are sufficient remedies [QCD, Easement, Reversionary Interest, License, Lease, BLAgreement, BLAdjustment, etc.] that the vast majority of problems can be – if people are willing to be reasonable – used to produce a workable solution. Moreover, it is the surveyor who generally will have a much better handle on the zoning rules which overlay the situation so that peoples’ future rights aren’t unintentially also getting trampled by an attorney not sufficiently clear about real property law.

The concerning issue in all this is that the surveyor will start to be seen as being partial (or an advocate) for the party hiring him or her and that isn’t in line with traditional surveying. OK, let’s take that issue on head straight.

Going forward, if the layman can pull out their cell phone and walk their property bounds with it, in all honesty there is no need to seek to protect the surveyor as being impartial … that component of surveying can already be verified by the layman.

Instead, I suggest the future of residential surveying ought to come down to the ability of people who know real property calculations, staking and mapping, and the law, to be able to ALSO help keep the peace between neighbors. If surveyors are the solution providers who assist to keep this peace, they will be doing the greatest public service of all … and serving the public has been considered the surveyor’s charge all along.

Up here in Seattle, Washington the rule of thumb for a boundary dispute is $50K each side … before the discretionary – not mandatory – shifting of the prevailing parties attorney fees and costs onto the loser. Another rule of thumb suggests there are “potential encroachments” identified about 1/2 the time a survey crew goes out. That means there are a lot of messy lots and titles out there. But whereas someone might be able to pay $5,000 for a surveyor to double check everything and work with a “reasonable” neighbor or that neighbor’s confirming surveyor to sort out a solution, most people are not in the position to pay $50K. As a result, boundary disputes for most people become a game involving the realpolitik of financial attrition and a superior appetite for risk.

End stop: Just as diplomacy is almost always exhausted before any engagement in war, surveyors – with their superior knowledge of real property – ought to reposition themselves as the diplomatic solution providers to assist the 99%+ of the population who are not in a position to pay $50 – $100K just for the bloodsport of jacking up their neighbors.

The market need is certainly there, but real property owners are generally willing to remain blissfully unaware because currently when the survey stakes go into the land, the only solution is to call your attorney. But despite my status as one, instead of kicking it right up to an attorney who in many events is goint to treat the matter as a lion would a slab of meat thrown out before it, if the surveyor were in a position to hold on to the issue and massage it out as a diplomat, the surveyor would be providing an extremely valuable service.

As a final note, I’ve lived in China where perception is more important than fact.

My takeaway from that experience is that perception must be fact. I say this for an important reason.

On your [February 3, 2014] program Jeff Lucas noted that surveyors are perceived as the problem creators. That’s not true. Surveyors are the problem identifiers. But a problem identifier who can’t offer a suitable solution is not only perceived as a problem creator, he or she is de facto the problem creator. As soon as the surveyor is empowered to both identify and solve these problems, demand for both traditional survey services and solution services will go up tremendously … this is why I think surveyors have an exceptionally bright future ahead. Cheers!

– Robert

At the close of today’s radio program, I indicated I would post any comments good, bad, sideways, or indifferent which relate to all this. I hope that either here or at other forums people will do that. This is an important discussion not just for surveyors, but for real estate attorneys as well.

Technology is supposed to help us do our jobs better. Moreover there is one aspect of technology which will never be replaced … our ability to interact and assist people to solve their problems.

Surveyors and real property attorneys alike are not paid by the land, we are paid by

  • Robert,

    First, you are absolutely correct in stating that the layman has the capability and in most cases, the propensity to see the surveyor as a neutral party to the issue at hand. At times the opposing land owner may view the surveyor as the other parties advocate, but if we, as surveyors, exhibit a neutral, friendly, concerned and objective attitude on site, it can ensure that the neighbor to our client views us as an advocate of all parties involved. Just last week, I stated to a client’s contentious neighbor that I was there to be part of the solution to both parties . By the time I left, both parties saw me as a positive presence, instead of the troublemaker. We should make more of an effort to impart that while on site.

    Second, I agree that at times the surveying community is hobbled by the separation between not being able to give “legal counsel” yet, in some cases, knowing more about remedies available to our clients for boundary disputes than some attorneys that are hired by our clients. Additionally, we have the advantage of being on the ground, seeing the issues at hand, talking often to both parties involved, and our “gut” feeling of the situation. When coupled with our knowledge of surveying practice and applicable laws, I believe that we could be of great benefit to our clients if we were able to give some very limited advice without fear of legal repercussion. Then perhaps we really could identify the problem and be part of the solution!

    Love the blog, keep it up! Well done, Robert!

  • Great comments, Robert. Early in my career I was hampered by the notion that we surveyors were only professional measurment makers and any discrepancies or disuputes had better be handled by attorneys or title officers. I’ve grown much bolder in my practice and now see myself as not only a discoverer of boundary problems, but also as an arbitrator and solver of those problems. I have been able to gain the respect of the legal, title and survey communities so that many of the disputes I am involved with are resolved with little or no legal expense on the part of the parties. RCW 58.04.007 gives the owners the ability to do just that.
    We surveyors are uniquely qualified to not only discover a boundary conflict, but to also uncover its source, understand the original grantor’s intent and then to propose an equitable solution which will make everyone feel like a winner.
    Sadly, King County DDES does not recognize the rights of the property owners granted by this law and reserves to themselves the right to review and determine if there is in fact a dispute and if the resulting agreement conforms to their standards.