KNOW YOUR BOUNDARIES - PART 1 - PROPERTY SURVEY
Updated: Sep 5, 2020
Whether you're a homeowner or looking to buy your first home, it's always good to know your property rights! Trust us, this cannot be taken for granted as we learned ourselves. We will share our insights to help you understand your property lines better.
When building a house, knowing your boundaries takes on a literal sense. You need to know where your property ends and your neighbour's begins. Relying on the existing fence you see and the hedges along the edge can be deceiving. These visual boundaries might not be a true indicator of the real property line. You also need to understand any registered rights on the property (known as encumbrances).
What you see may not be what holds true in terms of the law!
The last thing you want is to tear down that beautifully sculpted landscaping because you are encroaching way over your neighbour's yard. This is where an up-to-date property survey becomes useful and clarifies any ambiguity.
The truth is in the survey
We are fortunate that our builder is taking care of the entire surveying process for us by having a professional surveyor assess the boundaries prior to construction to know where we can and cannot build, and after construction to mark where exactly the new house has been built. As custom home clients, it is important to understand the basics of a survey in case some things get inadvertently overlooked by either the builder or real estate lawyer. But really, the basic principles here apply to all homeowners.
Let's talk in more detail about what a survey is and what the main pieces of information are...
In Ontario, all surveys must be certified by an Ontario land surveyor in accordance with the Surveyors Act. The proper term of a survey is actually called a "Surveyor's Real Property Report" (SRPR) and it provides valuable information regarding the size and dimensions of a property, as well as identifying any restrictions. It contains two parts as shown in the example below (not our own property). Part 1 is the plan of survey, which is a schematic diagram of the property. Part 2 is the written report, which details the rights and restrictions. So this is a trusted piece of paper you can count on!
This land is your land, this land is my land
By looking at the survey, it's hard to tell which land belongs to you and which land belongs to others. Understanding the survey can be daunting at first since it's easy to be quickly overwhelmed by lines, numbers and symbols.
For simplicity in this blog, we will only focus on the basics:
lines marking the property's boundary,
numbers identifying the legal land description and
symbols marking monuments found.
1. Lines - Property Boundary
The property lines on a survey are usually the thick, bold lines along the perimeter of the property. An example is shown below highlighted in yellow. This tells us the area within these lines marks your private property. This is how much land you own, not a millimetre more, not a millimetre less. Any features outside these dark lines are off limits and outside your boundary.
2. Numbers - PIN
When we refer to a property, we usually refer to it by it's municipal address, for example 123 Queen Street. However for legal purposes, this can be problematic because there might be more than one property with the same address.
What is more accurate than the street address is the "legal land description".
This describes the land in a precise manner so that one piece of land cannot be mistaken for another. The legal land description can be found on a survey, deed or municipal tax bill. It follows a standard naming convention that consists of 3 parts.
Locational Reference: This describes the location where the property is situated in terms of lot number, part lot number, plan number, or municipality. These terms can be confusing but you can think of them as a hierarchy, where the top is the most precise and bottom is the most general.
In the past, it was common that if you owned a property, you owned the entire lot. But in a city like Toronto, as the population became denser and denser, it is very common to sever lots. This means that instead of owning the entire lot, you only own part of the lot. So it's important that you always look at the most recent survey because you wouldn't want to build a house on land that doesn't belong to you.
Encumbrances: This describes the restrictions registered on the property such as easements that could affect the enjoyment of your land. Not all properties have easements, but when they do, they are usually denoted with letters S/T, T/W or S/T & T/W. These are clues you should pay attention to. We will discuss more about the pros and cons of easements in the next blog!
Municipality: This is the city or town the property belongs to.
Putting the 3 parts together, the legal land description for the sample survey above would be:
If you are confused by the abbreviations in the above legal land description, not to worry. Here is a cheat sheet for the most common abbreviations used.
PT = Part LT = Lot PL = Plan T/W = Together with S/T = Subject to
As you can see, legal land descriptions can be quite verbose. Fortunately, there is a unique 9-digit number assigned to each property in Ontario that corresponds to a legal land description. This is known as the "Property Identification Number" or PIN for short.
But as a note of caution, a PIN is subject to change when land is severed or subdivided. For example, when a lot is severed into two, one part of the land may keep the existing PIN and the other may be assigned a new PIN. An up-to-date survey would reflect this, but if you're looking at an older survey and your property happens to be using an existing PIN, it would be easy to assume that the entire lot is yours when in reality, only half belongs to you.
A great lookup tool to confirm the legal land description is the Ontario Land Registry Access available here. By typing an address or PIN, you would be able find the most recent legal land description associated with a property.
3. Symbols - Legend
Symbols used in surveys can vary from one survey to the next. So it's important to refer to the legend to understand the symbols and abbreviations used.
The most important symbol you want find on your survey and on your property is the survey monument.
These monuments typically mark the property corners. But they might not be visible on the property itself since they are often located under the grass and can only be found with a metal detector. If you are able to find them, that's great! You now know the exact corner where your property ends and another begins. But whatever you do, do not remove them as it is a violation of the Criminal Code of Canada.
One tree, two neighbours
Here is a real life example why property surveys are important to help you clarify your rights and obligations.
Trees are great in providing shade and greenery. However, when a tree grows too big and starts leaning on neighbouring properties, it can be a problem. For trees whose trunk straddles the property line, this can be an even bigger problem. This is the situation we are experiencing on our current property.
By looking at the image of our backyard below, we were under the impression that the large tree belongs to the adjoining neighbour to the rear. Visually, the tree is behind the tall wooden fence and appears to be in the neighbour's yard. But what we can't easily see is the presence of a deteriorated chain link fence behind the wooden fence that is about a foot away. This chain link fence is referenced in the survey and lies closely along the property line. The wooden fence must have been put up after the survey was completed to make the backyard more visually appealing.
When we compared the areas highlighted in red, it was clear the tree trunk straddles both properties. This is when we discovered that we have a boundary tree and there is joint ownership between us and the rear neighbours. Any actions to remove the boundary tree would require consent from all owners as it is considered common property. Failure to do so could potentially lead to legal issues down the road. We also noticed that the survey was outdated as it did not even show the tree on the survey to give us further indication what we are dealing with here.
Having an up-to-date survey property survey is definitely worth it
There's more to a survey than what is explained in this blog, but understanding the basics of a property survey can be valuable. If you do get a hold of a survey, make sure both parts are included (diagram and written report), this would give you the complete picture of your property. Also, make sure you are aware of the property lines and the legal land description corresponds to your address. Lastly, be sure to look for any boundary trees before you decide to chop it down.
Keeping a copy of an-up-to-date survey comes in handy whenever its time to resell your home or any occasion where there is a boundary dispute. By understanding the true nature and extent of the land you own, you can have better peace of mind and enjoy your property to its fullest.
Here are some helpful resources that you might find useful
Surveys on this site are available for purchase if you ever need one in a pinch, but is a bit costly. Try asking your neighbour since surveys for adjoining properties may have relevant details related to your property. Otherwise, check with your real estate professional since many brokerages have access to a GeoWarehouse subscription that includes access to surveys and other reports.
Legal Land Description Lookup
This is a great free tool to look up a legal land description in Ontario by address or PIN.