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I'm new to the site;  I've enjoyed reading your posts.  I've been in the business since I was 12 years old.  My father is a surveyor and, before he passed on, my brother was a surveyor.  I've held every position from carrying the coffee jar to pricing work to pulling manhole lids for inverts.  I'm educated, but not in the field of surveying.  I slipped in before the education requirements became so strict you might as well become an engineer if you're going to put that much effort and money into a degree.

I have a question for all of you members.  Give a short answer or a long one:  it's up to you.

What is the main question John Q. Public asks you when they find out you are a land surveyor or when they hire you and only see you walking up and down the street scratching your head.

I've heard many different ones but the same one pops up time and time again.

"What's that?" is one question to "I'm a land surveyor."  Of course "How much?" is always in there, but I'm looking to find out if you get that one question that is very tough to answer:  "Where do you start?"

I get that one all the time and it's difficult to answer.  What are your thoughts or do you have any witty replies or what ... lemme know.

One of the most confusing questions I got when I told someone I was a surveyor was this:  "So you go around knocking on doors asking questions?"

Matthew L. Harnett, LSIT

(yes, it has a good ring to it)

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  • I hope I it's OK to interfere with this professional discussion, but I have had some thoughts regarding the original question.

    Only one year ago I didn't know much more about surveying and what a surveyor does than most other people.

    Of cause I had seen some survey crews in the streets using some strange devices set up over some spikes set in the pavement of the road saying "survey point" or measuring with tapes along the buildings.

    And back then in school when we had trigonometry as topic in the mathematics lessons, some surveyors (from the local cadaster office or a similar agency, I don't know for sure anymore) visited our school and showed us a theodolite and a total station and explained how these instruments worked. I talked with them and they told me that some of the cadastral surveys in this area had been done 100 years ago with chains and that these are still "valid". I was surprised that such imprecise methods had been used and wondered how precise resurveys could be ever made in these areas without better original surveys.

    I also knew that the cadaster office somehow had the ability to find property boundaries even without monuments.

    But I didn't know how all this would fit together. How could measuring the distance between two monumented points  be useful? And, even after knowing the basics of trigonometry, how some distances and angles could help you to know where a boundary is located?

    Surveying looked interesting for me, but I absolutely didn't know how it really works and why it is useful.

    I didn't think much about it, until I had to give up my studies of chemistry for reasons that doesn't belong here and didn't know what to do. So I read about some jobs that seemed to be somehow interesting. One of these jobs was land surveyor. I read what a surveyor does and it sounded quite interesting, but of cause I still didn't knew how surveying really works.

    Finally I decided to study geodesy and geoinformatics. And the university demanded 8 weeks of internship in a company or office somehow related. I decided to do 6 weeks at the local cadaster office at it was nearby.

    There I first learned how the cadaster works and for what it is useful. I was impressed to see how many survey records and maps they keep dating back to 1875 and they have some which are even older, and I was told that the office didn't perform all this surveys itself, but that there are public appointed surveyors (ÖbVI) who are allowed to perform cadastral surveys but have to send their records to the cadaster office.

    But the most interesting days for me where the days when I could go out with a survey crew, even if that meant walking over muddy fields and through thorny bushes and stumbling over barbed wire fences. I realized that surveying is not only standing along the roads with strange devices, but is much work in the fields but also in the office, where no-one sees it.

    After a few days I thought I knew what land surveying means: Find the information for some pints (i. e. boundary corners) in some old records, calculate the coordinates for them and go out and find them and if necessary set a monument there.

    And I thought that it was an interesting job, but a job that would soon become superfluous and die out: If you have all the the old records, why not simply calculate the coordinates for all of them? OK, it might need one year or two to do this for every point in the state, but afterwards everyone could find them with a GPS device and surveys wouldn't be needed anymore.

    One day the head of the department of the cadaster office told me to stay for one day with him in his office. I thought it would become a really boring day, but I was wrong: He told me many interesting things, for example the history of the cadaster starting in the 1870s.

    But maybe the most important thing he told me was about being a surveyor: As the older records are not exact enough for modern standards, so you have to take other evidence into account, like boundary monuments, old fences, trees, ditches and so on but also for example any documents the land owners on both sides of the boundary can show you. So it's impossible to determine the boundary without actual surveying; sometimes even surveying other boundaries or lines to find evidence relevant for the one you want to determine.

    He said the surveyor is in these cases like a judge, collecting and weighting evidence from a neutral point of view, and in fact the only higher authority in determining a boundary is a court in an expensive lawsuit.

    He also told me about one case he settled recently as an example:

    There was a dispute between to neighbors about a corner of a boundary, originally surveyed some time before 1900. So the boundary was surveyed, and a monument was found and accepted as the corner by the surveyor.

    But one of the neighbors complaint as the boundary would be to close on his side so he would loose land to the other neighbor. So the boundary was surveyed again, and the said monument wasn't accepted this time, because it was found to be a concrete monument complete with a glass bottle buried upside down below it (which was common for many years to relocate the point if the monument would be lost); but in the time of the original survey concrete monuments weren't in use. so it couldn't be the original monument, and there where no records about the monument being replaced later.

    So they measured the distance to the point in the old map as no other records were available, but the map wasn't exact and now the other neighbor complaint about loosing land to the first neighbor.

    Finally, on a third survey, the head of the department himself found the original monument, a natural stone buried in the ground, somewhere between the points the two other surveys had found. To be sure a boundary agreement was made accepting this monument as the corner, and so the dispute between the neighbors could be settled finaly.

    He told me that such complicated cases are quite rare, but they can happen, and no land surveyor can be sure that the next one won't happen to him.

    This was when I realized that land surveyor is an important and responsible job that is highly underestimated by most people, only seeing the guys standing along the roads with strange devices doing "almost nothing".

    But on the other hand: At least most people here know that there is something like surveying. Almost every time I'm asked what I study and I answer "geodesy and geoinformatics", the first thing I hear is "geo...what?" or maybe even "do you mean geography?" And I find it's really hard to tell what a geodesist is in only a few sentences or even words.

    (I'm sorry for writing so much, but sometimes I start writing about something and when I have finished I realize i wrote much more than I wanted, but then I don't feel like deleting everything again.)

  • Land Surveyor

    Well Mr. Harnett, I can only speak from my own experience. I know plenty of Engineers and Land Surveyors. For me, when I was first beginning to really get interested in doing this as a career (around 1982 or so) my Chief of Parties at the time, Kurt Webb told me I should think hard about becoming a Professional Land Surveyor. He told me I could write my own ticket and the sky was the limit. He was right and I thank my lucky stars everyday I listened to him. I hate to admit it now in these lean times but the fact of the matter is I have made far more money than I ever thought possible and not only that I was able to make it on my own terms. If I had been an Engineer the kind of opportunities I have had as a Professional Land Surveyor would have been much harder to come by. An old Engineer buddy of mine who also was grandfathered as a Professional Land Surveyor once told me  how lucky he was to hold the Surveyor's licence in the downturn in the 80s. He said it put food on his table when nothing else was doing it. While times have been rough for Professional Land Surveyors in the last 4 years or so it is only temporary in my opinion. Engineers, Architects and almost all other professions (short of bankruptcy lawyer) have also suffered tremendously. People simply do not go to the dentist or hire a Land Surveyor when they can't pay their other bills. I agree that the number of Professional Land Surveyors is dwindling and this should be of real concern to us. The problem with reducing the formal education requirements as I see it is that as a Professional Land Surveyor I am in constant contact with highly trained, highly educated professionals in other fields in the course of my normal business functions. I, as a Professional Land Surveyor, must be the same as they are and if I am not then my profession is doomed. I admit that field experience can't be replaced by formal education when it comes to Professional Land Surveying but the fact of the matter is I spend a lot of my time confronting other Professional Land Surveyors who make mistakes because they lack a basis for their opinions that would have come from a more formal education. This happens both in the course of business as well as in the course of pleasure. Now I am sure I have just as many stories available regarding formally educated Professional Land Surveyors who blow it because they do not have enough field experience. I just think that education is the key here and if we don't operate at the same level as our peers our profession will suffer.

    Great discussion!

  • Oh, and as a side note, I don't consider lawyers and judges as the GP. 

  • GEO Ambassador

    top notch discussion guys...THIS is educating the public!  keep it goin!

  • Land Surveyor

    Mr. Harnett, I don't know that I agree with your statement "education requirements became so strict you might as well become an engineer if you're going to put that much effort and money into a degree." Engineering has little or nothing to do with Professional Land Surveying in my opinion.

    Professional Land Surveying as a profession is very obscure for a number of reasons. This is why educating the public about what a Professional Land Surveyor does and why they do it is so important.

    I know for a fact that my knowledge of case law regarding real property often far exceeds that of the vast majority of Lawyers for example. I often find myself explaining case law and codified law to lawyers not just "John Q. Public." Many of these lawyers are certified in real property law.

    Evidence, case law and codified law guide the Professional Land Surveyor to form an opinion of a boundary that can be supported before the Court (if it comes to that). If your opinion as a Professional Land Surveyor lacks a preponderance of the evidence available or departs from case law or codified law you may find yourself the subject of a negligence suit.

    People often ask me what a Professional Land Surveyor does and why they do it. My first response is typically to explain that as a Professional Land Surveyor I am not an advocate of any particular opinion other than my own. As a Professional Land Surveyor the only thing I really advocate is stabilizing and perpetuating original real property boundaries in the public record and on the ground. This is what my opinions are rooted in and designed for as a Professional Land Surveyor.

    When people stop me on the street and ask me why I am on a property looking for evidence that is not the property I am surveying, I find this a perfect opportunity to education them. Since each real property boundary is associated with an adjoining real property boundary then it is impossible to locate one without locating the other. You must find the end of both things to find out where they join and how they join.

    Many people have seen me digging up some piece of evidence like an iron rod or iron pipe and somehow believe that Professional Land Surveyors are pipe and iron rod finders and this is the extent of their function. My answer to this is to point out the small rope tied to the pipe or iron rod with goat bones around the end of it. I ask them why they would believe that a goat stake driven to tie down a long forgotten dead goat somehow caused the boundaries of real property to be relocated to it. I point out that if this were true then why not drive an old pipe in their neighbors yard and then later go and tell them they will have to move out of their home because you now own it by virtue of the pipe location. Pipes, iron rods and other evidence do not necessary define the location of real property boundaries. It takes an expert at reviewing this evidence in the light of public records and other extrinsic evidence to try and locate any particular boundary. The necessity of reviewing this information extends well beyond the subject tract you are actually trying to determine the boundary of.

    Professional Land Surveyors often find themselves being ask to explain intractable problems that defy logical or rational conclusion. An example of this is the GPS system which is based on a perfect theoretical location of the center of the earth. Sounds great on paper but the problem with it becomes apparent when you try to determine elevations with it. How water manages to run uphill in such a model defies explanation for even the most educated among people. This is where the Professional Land Surveyor comes in.

    When I am contacted by potential clients often, as you said, the first question is "how much?". My response is that I do not know because it is rather like walking into a grocery store and asking "how much for the bananas?". I do not know because I do not know how many bananas they want, what kind of bananas they want or when they need the bananas. I tell them I must get basic information from them in order to give them an estimate of cost.

    As far as people asking me if knocking on doors and asking questions is what I do I respond no. This may be part of it but parol evidence for example can typically only be introduced (depending on the jurisdiction you are practicing in or the available evidence) if it supports the plain words of a conveyance. Using parol evidence to refute the plain words of a conveyance will go nowhere in court (in most cases). Anybody can say anything they believe is true but without a basis in fact, evidence or the law it is simply an assertion.

    What makes me a Professional Land Surveyor and what drives me to practice Professional Land Surveying may certainly not be what motivates other Professional Land Surveyors. For me finding evidence on the ground placed by other Land Surveyors a decade ago, a century ago, or more with minimal information available as to it's actual location on the ground has been my most rewarding experience as a Professional Land Surveyor. In a way I feel by these acts that I am conferring immortality to those long dead Land Surveyors who placed this evidence I find as I hope future Land Surveyors will confer immortality onto me.

    Nice to meet you and I am looking forward to further iteration from you.      

    • Deward,

      I think you took my statements the wrong way.  When I was younger, say a teenager, and was asked, "What do you do working with your dad?"  I'd say, "I do surveying."  My friends were not nearly as educated as you or I am so they based their assumption on people taking census surveys.  I know it's stupid, but that's what they thought.  I understand your education and background in the biz.  I was talking about the general public and what THEY think of our profession.  I absolutely take every opportunity to educate them as to my procedures and responsibilities.  Most of the GP have no idea that we stand responsible for our work for 12 years (changed from what....21?) 

      As for the degree aspect of the conversation, kids out of high school are faced with a choice.  Engineers have always, for some reason, held a higher position in the general business world as surveyors.  You and I know we cant do without each other.  I was commenting on the testing rooms at the board exams:  225 examinees for engineering and 13 for surveyors.  The numbers don't lie.  Of the 13 survey examinees, only 3 or 4 are from the very state in which the exam is being taken.  We are losing our future surveyors:  I think to the engineering field.  Prime surveying knowledge does not come from a book as you may well know.  No book is going to help you fend of irate neighbors or understand the meaning of due diligence:  Experience teaches you that.  I grew up in the surveying game.  I've seen the best (and the worst) ways of doing both.  This is an apprenticed trade.  It's getting to the point where you have to devote so much time to the academic parts, when you get into the field (which is where the surveyor should be), you watch this "newbie" flop around like a fish out of water.  You may know the meaning of "invert" but have you ever pulled a lid?  Have you ever actually smelled the result of pulling said lid?  Now you have to stick your measuring tool down in there and measure it (& yes, clean it off when you're done).  I know you've done these things, but the general public just flushes the toilet and all their trouble go down the drain.  I think my main goal here is to educate the GP and help them realize how "expensive" surveys can be.  Believe me, I take every opportunity to educate my clients.  I've gotten work because I was informative and helpful and pleasant whereas other companies just ask, "Do you want me to survey your lot or what?" 

      I suppose I was asking for others' stories of how they deal with the main hurdle:  our potential client base.  I appreciate your response and yes I was able to take from it bits of info I can use. 

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