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What is an ALTA Survey? Gary S. Kent, PLS




2016 ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey Standards Adopted by Societies


Two years of concentrated effort by their respective committees culminated in the adoption of the new 2016 Minimum Standard Detail Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys by the American Land Title Association and the National Society of Professional Surveyors. The new standards became effective on February 23rd of 2016.


The officially adopted 2016 Standards can be found at http://www.nsps.us.com/ under the “Resources tab.”  Also found there is a “red-line” version of the 2011 Standards showing the deletions and additions that resulted in the 2016 version. The Standards can also be found at http://www.alta.org/forms/  (click on “Most Requested”).

Following is a brief overview of what most title professionals and surveyors will likely see as the most significant changes.


General comments

Surveyors will note that the title of the standards has changed to “ALTA/NSPS” from “ALTA/ACSM” in order to acknowledge the merger of ACSM and NSPS. The committees also made wording consistent throughout the standards (with one exception) when referring to the surveyor’s obligation to locate certain objects and features (“observed in the process of conducting the fieldwork”).


Section 2 – Request for Survey

The list of unusual properties or interests in real property that can be the subject of an ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey has been expanded so that it clearly includes easements.


Section 4 – Records Research

In recognition of the purpose of an ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey, the surveyor must be provided with the most recent title commitment. However, if a title commitment is not made available, title evidence satisfactory to the title insurer, which might include an abstract of title, a title opinion, an old title policy or one of the various other types of products that title companies produce is acceptable.


Some of the documents referred to in the 2011 (and earlier) Standards as “Record Documents” were not actually documents recorded in the office of public record, thus the 2016 Standards have abandoned the term “Record Documents” throughout, in favor of merely referencing those documents that are “to be provided to the surveyor.”


In several sections of the standards, what had previously been lists in paragraph form have been restructured into annotated lists for ease of reading.  One example of this is in Section 4. This list of documents to be provided to the surveyor now includes “records established under state statutes for the purpose of imparting constructive notice of matters relating to real property (public records)” (e.g., deeds, copies of easements), and any unrecorded documents that affect the property and to which the client wishes the surveyor make reference.


The most important change to Section 4 is the last paragraph.  All previous versions of the Standards – dating back to 1962, avoided outlining exactly who was responsible for obtaining other necessary documents. That stance likely had its origins in trying to adapt widely varying state standards and standards of practice to a national standard, but regardless of the reason, it was past time for the Standards to address the issue.


The 2016 Standards direct the surveyor to look to his or her jurisdictional standards (whether statutory (as they are in a few states), or administrative/regulatory (as they are in most states)) when either (a) the documents that were to be provided by virtue of Section 4 are not forthcoming, or (b) the surveyor needs other documents to complete the survey.


For those states that have no jurisdictional standards, like California and a few others, surveyors need to be familiar with the normal standard of care as referred to in Section 3.C. Given the variations across the country (and the fact that surveyors must comply with the laws and the normal standard of care in their areas), the committees felt this was the most logical and viable approach to this issue.


Section 5 – Fieldwork

The introductory sentences to Section 5 address precision when locating the various features in the field. This issue had also been ignored since 1962 and, again, it was past time to address it.  The degree of precision pursuant to the 2016 Standards is to be based on the surveyor’s professional judgment when taking into account “(a) the planned use of the property, if reported in writing to the surveyor by the client, lender, or insurer, or (b) the existing use, if the planned use is not so reported…”


A number of fairly minor but important modifications were made to Section 5; however, one major change is in subsection 5.E.iv.  Essentially, what used to be Table A Item 11(a) has now been made a required part of an ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey.


This will eliminate the conundrum caused by the dynamic between former Table A item 11(a) (evidence of utilities) and Sections 5.E.i. and ii. (observed evidence of easements) in the 2011 Standards. If Table A item 11a (or 11b) was not checked, the surveyor did not need to locate any observed evidence of utilities. However, if that utility evidence fell within an easement for which documentation was provided, or if that utility evidence represented the possibility of a prescriptive easement, the evidence did need to be located. Thus, there was confusion over whether or not utility evidence needed to be located; and if the wrong decision was made in that regard, there could be a very serious problem for the surveyor. (Readers who have attended one of this writer’s ALTA/ACSM programs have heard mention of a million dollar lawsuit against a surveyor revolving around this very issue.)   See below for further comments in this issue.


Section 6 – Plat or Map

Section 6 now addresses the issue of dimensioning – leaving it to the judgment of the surveyor based on the planned use of the property as reported (or not).


When the surveyor decides it is appropriate to prepare a new description based on the results of his or her survey, Section 6.B.ii. now requires a note explaining how the new description relates to the record description (i.e., if it describes the same property and, if not, how it differs).


Subsection 5.E.ii. requires a summary of the plottable easements and servitudes listed in Schedule B2 of the title commitment, and a statement as to whether or not each item is shown. This will help eliminate unnecessary calls to surveyors from reviewers of the survey who have trouble interpreting or finding certain items.


If a Table A item has been negotiated or qualified in a manner that differs from how it was spelled out in the Standards, Section 6.D.g. requires an explanation. It also requires that any additional Table A items negotiated with the client all be identified as item 21; if there are multiple additional items, they shall be identified as 21(a), 21(b), etc.


Table A

Table A Item 6 now requires that a report or letter containing the zoning information that the client or lender wants identified on the plat/map be provided to the surveyor by the client. This addresses the problem identified after adoption of the 2011 Standards whereby title companies were to provide this information, but – due primarily to liability issues – they often declined to do so. Significantly, Item 6(b) also relieves the surveyor from having to graphically depict setback lines if doing so requires an interpretation on the part of the surveyor.


Item 8 now includes “substantial areas of refuse” which was necessary in exchange for the elimination of former Table A Item 18 (“Observed evidence of site use as a solid waste dump, sump or sanitary landfill”).


Item 11 (utilities) has been a difficult item for surveyors since day one and it continues to become even more problematic over time. Main concerns revolve around client expectations, difficulty in getting responses to one-call locate requests, difficulty in obtaining plans, and: Who is supposed to order all of that in the first place?  Keeping in mind that what was 11(a) in 2011 has, in 2016, been made mandatory pursuant to Section 5.E.iv., Table A Item 11 now only involves what had been 11(b) – what might be referred to as a “utility investigation.”


The responsibility for trying to obtain utility plans and for ordering utility locates now clearly lies with the surveyor. However, there is nothing whatsoever to prevent surveyors from qualifying or spelling out what they will and will not do in that regard in their contract (yet another reason to use a written contract). Also, the wording in the “Note” following Item 11 has been modified and expanded to better manage the client, lender and title company’s expectations even further with regard to what surveyors may actually be able to accomplish with regard to utilities. A similar note could - and probably should - be part of the surveyor’s contract and should also appear on the face of the plat or map with information related the actual results of the specific investigation.


Regarding utilities, it is very important to emphasize again that what used to be Table A item 11a – observed evidence of utilities – is now a mandatory requirement.  So if clients want only “observed evidence” of utilities, they do not need to check any Table A items, they will get that automatically by virtue of Section 5.E.iv.


One of the biggest problems that came out of the 2011 Standards was the pervasive lack of understanding of Item 18 (Wetlands) on the part of clients, lenders and, to some extent, surveyors. This can only be attributed to poor drafting of the item in 2011. For 2016, this item says exactly what it should say (and what was intended in 2011) and the new wording should make it clear that surveyors are not responsible for delineating wetlands.


Former Table A Item 18 (evidence of site use as a solid waste dump, sump or sanitary landfill) has been eliminated. Such matters are properly the subject of a Phase One Environmental Assessment, not a survey.


What had been Item 19(b) in the 2011 Standards has also been eliminated because it was determined that setting monuments on someone else’s property could constitute a trespass.  What had been Table A Item 19(a), is therefore now just Item 19. It has been reworded to try to clarify the item.  Essentially, Item 19 suggests that, if checked, the off-site easement(s) involved would be surveyed in the same manner as a fee parcel would be surveyed – applying Sections 5 and 6, and whatever Table A items were selected/negotiated as appropriate.


Item 20 now states that information related to professional liability insurance shall not appear on the face of the plat or map. This is in response to those attorneys who have sometimes made the outrageous demand that surveyors identify the extent of their professional liability coverage on the face of the plat/map.



Every modification reflected in the 2016 Standards has its own specific purpose. There are many more changes besides those outlined above. Virtually every single change will either directly or indirectly provide an assist surveyors, while importantly, not diminishing the value of the product for the ultimate user – the title insurers.


As has been the case ever since this writer became involved with the standards in 1988, the NSPS and ALTA committees work very closely together to maintain a Standard that will result in surveys that meet the needs of the title industry while also keeping the requirements clear, realistic and achievable for surveyors.


A debt of gratitude is owed to all of the members of the ALTA and NSPS committees that participated in the process and to the many others who offered suggestions and comments throughout the process.



Frequently Asked Questions


Why the change in names from ALTA/ACSM to ALTA/NSPS?


ACSM (the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping) was essentially merged into the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) several years ago.  The successor organization is NSPS.  The committees felt that it was appropriate that the name of the new Standards reflect the organizations that developed, adopted, and are responsible for them.


The effective date of the new 2016 ALTA/NSPS Standards was February 23, 2016.  What about the transition period?


It is suggested that any Land Title Survey being conducted pursuant to a contract that was executed before February 23rd be performed to the 2011 Standards.  Any contract executed on February 23rd or after would have to be performed pursuant to the 2016 Standards.  On the other hand, if the contract was executed on a date prior to the 23rd, but it is obvious to the surveyor that the survey will not be delivered until the 23rd or after, it would be logical, although not required, to perform the survey pursuant to the 2016 Standards.


There might be some exceptions to the effective date – depending on the attorney’s attitude - related to HUD surveys.  HUD Multifamily has not released new requirements yet (in 2011, HUD Multi-Family did not release new requirements until June), and if the attorney insists that the survey must be completed using the 2011 Standards until HUD recognizes the 2016 Standards, surveyors may have to comply.


How do I deal with an “update” to a 2011 ALTA/ACSM Land Title Survey?


If the contract to conduct the “update” is executed after February 23rd, it would have to be performed pursuant to the 2016 Standards.  However, if the “update” is simply a follow-up on a survey related to a conveyance that had been anticipated to close before February 23rd, but was perhaps unexpectedly delayed for a fairly short time until after the 23rd, the surveyor could probably logically conduct the update pursuant to the 2011 Standards. This logic should not extend to “updates” unrelated to the initial conveyance or updates that take place substantially after February 23rd.


As an aside, notwithstanding the innocuous-sounding word “update,” there is actually no such thing.  Every “update” that carries a new certification date is a new survey – the surveyor is certifying that the survey reflects the current conditions on the property and that it was performed pursuant to all of the requirements in the standards.  The only difference is that the surveyor happens to have surveyed the property previously, so the client might realize a reduced fee or quicker turnaround depending on a number of factors (e.g., how long has it been since the initial survey?  How many changes have affected the property since?). 


I see that in Section 4 of the 2016 Standards, there is essentially an acknowledgement that the documents to be provided to the surveyor may not be forthcoming.  If they are not, the surveyor need only conduct that research otherwise required by “the statutory or administrative requirements of the jurisdiction where the property being surveyed is located” (or pursuant to the contract).  I am from a state that does not have any mandatory standards adopted by its regulatory Board or in its statutes.  What responsibility do I have for the research if is not forthcoming?


Where there are no mandatory jurisdictional standards, the practice of surveying would typically be defined by the standard of care exercised by competent surveyors working in the same area under similar circumstances and on similar projects. So, a surveyor should be familiar with how other surveyors in his or her area deal with research on land title and boundary surveys and do the same.


Why is ‘observed evidence of utilities’ now mandatory on a Land Title Survey pursuant to Section 5.E.iv. rather than optional as it was in Table A tem 11(a) of the 2011 Standards?


This change was made to address a conundrum.  Pursuant to the 2011 Standards, if a client did not request Table A item 11(a) or 11(b), the surveyor had no responsibility to locate and show evidence of utilities.  But if that utility evidence could be considered evidence of an easement, the surveyor did need to locate and show it pursuant to Sections 5.E.i. through iv.  The committees felt that most evidence of utilities could also be considered evidence of easements, so to eliminate future problems and questions in that regard, locating and showing observed evidence of utilities was made mandatory for 2016.


The 2016 Standards say the surveyor needs to be provided with the most recent title commitment “or other title evidence satisfactory to the title insurer.”  Why not simply require a title commitment?


Title companies have other products that are sometimes requested by clients that fall short of commitments and policies, but that are acceptable to the client. In addition, in some cases, and in at least one state, abstracts are still used on a regular basis.  Since the Standards were developed expressly to address title company needs, the standards – starting in 2011 – required that title evidence be provided to the surveyor.  But sometimes, the title company may accept or produce something less than a title commitment, so the standards need to reflect that fact.


The date of fieldwork is obvious, but what is the date of the Plat or Map?


That is the date that the survey will be identified by.  Many surveyors date the plat or map as of the date they signed it.  Others backdate it to the date of the fieldwork. The committees feel this decision is best left to the surveyor.  In some states, the date of the plat/map must be the same as the date of the fieldwork.


Former Table A item 18 (Observed evidence of site use as a solid waste dump, sump or sanitary landfill) has been removed. Why?


This item was initially developed as a Table A item prior to the ubiquitous use of Phase One Environmental Assessments in commercial transactions. This is the type of thing that a Phase One ESA was developed to identify. The committees felt that, in light of the near universal use the Phase One ESA, there was no need for the surveyor to look for this sort of evidence. Of course, whether a surveyor not trained in environmental matters would recognize such uses was questionable anyway and clients might have been placing unwarranted faith in this item.  In the 2016 Standards, Table A item 8 now asks that the surveyor locate and show observed “substantial areas of refuse.”


Many other questions – some frequently asked and some merely of interest, can be found in the NSPS newsletter “News and Views.”  Archives of old editions can be found by typing “Land Title Survey” into the search box at:  http://multibriefs.com/briefs/NSPS/


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