DIY Site Surveying


A boundary survey, like the one we got from our seller, is good to have.  These generally show “metes and bounds” which describe the length and direction of each segment of the property line.  It’s also good if they show existing and adjacent structures, utility locations, and setbacks or easements.  (Although adjacent structures can be approximated from satellite photos, utilities can be located and marked on site by the Call Before You Dig folks by calling 811, and setbacks can be determined by reading the zoning ordinance.)

Our lot is wooded and sloped, and we want to respond to both in our design.  Tree location and elevation markers or topo lines aren’t included on boundary surveys.  We needed a topographic survey, which is easy enough to DIY if you have some time (ours took 6-8 hours) and can borrow the equipment.  If not, you can hire a professional:  I had a quote for around $800.

I made a drawing of our property with gridlines spaced at 10’ and printed it on a large format printer.  Then we placed little orange survey flags from Lowes on the lot every 10’ in both directions.  I positioned and leveled a borrowed transit in one place.  Melissa took a measuring rod and stood at each of the flags while I looked through the scope of the transit and recorded the measurements on the printed property drawing.  While the flags were still in place (we only had enough to cover 1/3 of the property at a time) we marked the relative location of each tree and approximate trunk diameter.

Most professional surveyors use newer equipment that records GPS information.  That info goes directly into proprietary software to generate a topo map.  It’s pretty slick!


While we used the old school method to get our data, I have no interest in long hand extrapolation to generate topo lines.  So I jumped on my computer, opened Google Sketchup, dropped my data points in there, filled in the geometric faces between, and then sliced it horizontally every foot, and voila – topo lines!  I also marked the tree locations and sizes on the 3D model.

We were starting to understand our lot a little better!

(Cross Section)                                               me –^


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