The Lost Art of Locating Property Corners

Article by Glen Tanner, Professional Land Surveyor, Copyright 2011, Used by Permission

Locating Property Corners
The art of finding property corners is being lost. The following picture shows what inspired this article.
The two rebar, a #4 rebar and a #5 rebar, shown in the photo to the right are 1.9 feet apart and set in 1994 or after according to the client.
Did surveyors not have Minimum Technical Standards and magnetic locators or at least an aqua locator in 1994?
How many of you surveyors had your crew come in and the party chief tells you that they had to set an iron because they couldn’t find an iron pin? How many of you accept this or do you check it out yourself?
There is a lot of iron ore in the rocks around these two rebar, which will mess with magnetic locators if your not patient.(Photos taken 03-16-11)
Any time I go into an old subdivision, pre-1980-85, before surveyors started using rebar and see capped rebar at corners where galvanized iron pins, solid bars or old irons should be, I always ask myself how hard did the surveyor look before setting the corner.
Setting a new pin Increases the land surveyors liability AND causes confusion as to the true location of the property boundaries.
In old neighborhoods, especially those that go up and down steep inclines, very seldom do the irons on the ground match the recorded plat or deed, in angle or in distance, and if you try to use a pre-set data collector and a total station, 9 out of 10 times you will not find all the property corners – not because they’re missing, but because you’re probably in the wrong place or weren’t looking hard enough.
We should always remember that in old subdivisions and old boundary surveys, surveyors used plumb bobs, chain, theodolite, and no one knows what the closure of the survey may have been, if it even had one.
Locating Property Corners
Almost all survey crews today have a magnetic pin finder and either a bushaxe or machete. But for some jobs, these aren’t adequate.
As a Professional Surveyor I use the tools shown to the left. Without them, how do you expect your crews to locate property corners if they can’t even dig them up?
The magnetic locator in this picture is about 17 years old. It is held together with JB-weld and duck tape.
The reason I don’t buy a new one is because new isn’t always better, when it growls I understand why, when it screams I know why, most of all I’ve had very good luck with it finding corners.
I have always used an aqua locator, the small black box in the picture, near fences or when I doubt what the magnetic locator is doing. An aqua locator works as deep as 2 feet.
I go thru a sharp shooter a year, the pick is for hard ground, the post hole diggers are for when the sharp shooter doesn’t work getting out the dirt.
The next question is how low will you go to find a property corner, in other words how deep will you dig before you give up and set a property corner?
The following pictures were taken 3-16-11 but the work was done about a week before. (That is why you will see a post in the picture.) I re-dug the hole to get the photo of this rare find. The first item I found was the bottom of a coke bottle. (center of the photo)
Locating Property Corners
How many of your crew members would quit here thinking this is garbage? Would they keep digging and discover the property corner UNDER the bottle?
Locating Property Corners
One open-top iron pipe found – the original property corner on this subdivision lot.


How deep does your crew dig to find a property corner? I personally go until I’m absolutely sure.
The deepest I have ever had to dig to locate an iron is 3 feet. I have found old irons that a tree has grown over or around as much as a foot in the tree.

This lot was a 100 by 200 according to the plat, but on the ground along the road it measured 98 feet, along the rear of lot, 96 feet and 198 feet in depth.

Boy, this one sure matched the plat. This lot originally was an Autauga county gully that has been filled.

The plat was recorded in 1969 and all lots shown on the plat along the south line were shown to be 160 feet plus or minus. Do you believe the rest of the subdivision is going to match the plat?

Due to improper equipment, lack of skill and training, or proper time and effort by land surveyors and survey crews to locate or find property corners in old subdivisions, more and more corners are being set instead of being found. I have always believed it is better to find an original corner than to set a new  corner.

Locating Property Corners

Ask anyone that knows me, they will tell you, before Glen Tanner quits looking and sets an iron, the ground will look like it has been attacked by armadillos and groundhogs.
The art and skill of finding property corners is disappearing. We as surveyors need to teach and emphasize the need to look for and locate property corners.
I find about 90% of property corners in old subdivisions. It isn’t always easy and some of the time it is very time consuming. I have been known to go back on a different day, after having had time to look at my field data, and start fresh with a better idea on where to look before setting an iron pin.
It does work but it takes time, it is something we don’t allow ourselves or allow our survey crews – time to look.
Isn’t our duty as a land surveyor to follow in the footsteps of the original land surveyor as closely as possible, not to re-interpret or move a corner to where it calculates. Many of you surveyors are going to say that your “clients aren’t going to pay for it” or “I didn’t allow that much time in the job to be going back.”
That’s our job, Isn’t it? Isn’t it required by the Standards of Practice? Isn’t it our ethical duty to protect the public and to do these things regardless of what the client is willing to pay or how much time we have allowed in the job?

The art to finding old irons is to listen to property owners, who know the area, or how it was surveyed, but most of all taking the time to look and dig. That’s right – dig – a lot.

My magnetic locator doesn’t have a brain, it didn’t go to school, it doesn’t speak English, Spanish or French – But, it will lie to you. Learn to understand your equipment, something that may take months, even a year or two.

Understanding the squeaks and squalls of the magnetic locator signal being sent to the user is important. Remember be patient, learn what what to look for and most of all – dig, dig, dig. THIS is the art of locating old property corners.

If you need help locating your property lines in the Auburn area, please call the land surveyors at (334) 826-9540. Our field crew strives to live up to the high standards Glen talks about in this article.