Best Practices in Land Surveying: Creating Superior Land Description Plats

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series March 2014

Land surveyors are taught the requirements of an effective land description, but the plat map or exhibit that frequently accompanies a land description is often a neglected topic of discussion. In this article I discuss how to create superior land description plats. I begin with a simple definition of a land description plat, follow with an understanding of the plat’s purpose, list the challenges of creating an effective plat, and conclude by considering the important elements of a land description plat.

What Is a Land Description Plat?

We need a simple definition of a land description plat to aid in the understanding of this article. Here is the definition that I prefer:

A map that graphically depicts the boundaries of a parcel of land. The plat is typically printed on a small size and accompanies a written land description of the same parcel it depicts graphically.

Most boundary surveyors are very familiar with land description plats. They’ve used them to understand and retrace land description boundaries, or they’ve created plats for their own land description packages.

Its Purpose

Mar_2014_24Why do boundary surveyors create land description plats? What is their purpose?

Imagine trying to convey all of the information needed to construct a large sports stadium using only a written document. This would be a great challenge. We use graphical plans, or blueprints, of construction projects because the information is ideally suited through communication by graphical means. In many cases, our human brains more readily understand information presented as pictures than we do information presented with words.

The same principle applies to our description of land parcels. Although the written description of a land parcel’s boundaries is important, the description is often easier to mentally digest and understand in a picture format. This is especially true for the non-surveyor who may struggle to understand the traditional written land description. Plats can be used to visually convey important aspects of the subject land parcel that are difficult to quickly grasp from a written description.

These aspects include:

  • the shape of the parcel,
  • the size of the parcel,
  • the relationship between the subject parcel boundary and the boundaries of surrounding parcels,
  • the relationship between the subject parcel boundary and important geographic features or controlling elements, and
  • the relationship between the parcel boundary and controlling property corner monuments.

Who Is the Typical Audience?

The first category in our typical audience is our fellow boundary surveyor. This is the person who most closely examines our plat and the most important user of the information that it contains. The data shown on our plat can be used by our fellow boundary surveyor to actually determine the location of land parcel boundaries on the ground. For this reason, our fellow boundary surveyor is the most important viewer of our plats and should be the person we keep first in mind when we design and draw our plat.

The second category in our typical audience is a land professional without a land surveying background. This could be a land attorney, a land title officer, a land manager, or someone from the planning department at a local government agency. Because of their limited land surveying background, these individuals will often rely more heavily on the plat than the written land description. 

For these land professionals, the plat is the primary vehicle for conveying information about the subject land parcel boundary. For this audience, the boundary surveyor must remember the plat he designs and draws may be the only part of the land description viewed and used. It must therefore, to the extent possible, stand on its own, independent of the written description.


We’ve all looked at ugly survey maps or survey maps that are confusing and difficult to understand. Because of the unique challenges presented by the format, it is even easier for a boundary surveyor to create an ugly or confusing land description plat. The legal weight that can be given to a plat in the United States legal system can make a confusing land description plat more harmful than no plat at all.

What are the challenges of the typical land description plat format?

  • They are typically drawn on a small-sheet size. This is often 8.5 inches by 11 inches with a 1-inch margin.
  • They are typically drawn in black and white, with very limited ability to represent shades of gray or screened shades.
  • There is usually a minimum text size of 0.10 of an inch.


What are the implications of these challenges?

  • If you have a large parcel or a parcel with a complex boundary, the small-sheet size can make it difficult to properly convey information on the parcel boundary at a suitable scale.
  • The color and shade limitations can make it difficult to establish a visual hierarchy to represent the importance of information shown on the plat.

How Do You Overcome These Challenges?

The first challenge of small sheet size can be overcome by the proper use of details and multi-sheet layouts for your plat.

The second and third challenges can be overcome by the effective use of fonts, line types, and line weights.

The Important Elements of an Effective Land Description Plat

What are the important elements that should be included in every superior land description plat?These elements include:

  • the boundary of the subject parcel,
  • the measurement data for the subject parcel boundary,
  • the identification and location of controlling elements that help define the subject parcel boundary,
  • the identification and location of the land description’s point of beginning,
  • the identification and location of the land description’s commencement points,
  • the relationship between the subject parcel and the surrounding parcels, and
  • identification and ownership information related to the subject parcel. This would include the parcel name, owner name, tax assessor identifier, physical street address, and identification of the vesting deed.

In a future article I consider how the information in this article can be applied. I also consider a couple of example land descriptions and discuss how effective land description plats can be created for them.

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Best Practices in Land Surveying: Creating Superior Land Description Plats” Comments

  1. I like that you cover the typical audience. It is important to keep this in mind when doing a plat. It is true that a fellow land surveyor is the first person to think about. However, it is important to consider that it is likely that someone like a land title officer will be looking at the plat as well, and will need to be able to understand it.

  2. I would have to agree that sometimes the survey maps are hard to read. That’s why it’s good to hire a land surveyor that will try and help you understand how to read the map. Then you can get pretty good idea on what’s going on.

    • DoloresB, it’s true, reading survey maps are intricate, and complex. This makes them very in-depth, and having help from the right source is the best choice for understanding. Figuring it out with help is both informative, and educational. Land surveying is incredibly interesting, and I want to learn more.

  3. Conveying information clearly and effectively sounds like an important attribute for a land description plat to have. I like your ideas for achieving this by using multi-sheet layouts and varied line weights for emphasis. Even if you have all the relevant information on the page, I think it will be much a more useful land survey if it is organized clearly.

  4. Landon,
    Thanks for sharing these ideas about land description plats in surveying. Your section about overcoming the limitations of normal survey maps is insightful. I think your ideas about multi-sheet layouts for complex plats and changing up the fonts and line structure and weight will go a long way to making plat descriptions easier to understand for both of your prescribed audiences. Great post!

  5. Thanks for sharing all of that information about making the best land plats for clients. I can definitely see how a plat would be beneficial when you are trying to help your client find the best land for a big property. It’s also really cool that you can use multiple layers to your advantage. In fact, I’d love to see an example of a multi-layered land plat!

  6. As an average person without surveying experience, it was very difficult to understand the land plat maps while searching for a parcel. I think your suggestion of adding relevant details for the surrounding properties is important. Often, people from other areas view plat maps online and find it hard to really understand the true value of land parcels. I hope that all surveyors take your suggestions into consideration. They really keep these drawings relevant and informative.

  7. Thanks for clearing that up. When I told my little brother that his uncle is doing land surveying he though it was like being a modern day explorer. He thought that was really cool. Although, I honestly never fully understood what he did. Sounds like a lot of measuring and writing. How much do surveyors generally charge? By the square footage, vertical elevation, or something else?

  8. Thank you for all of this great information on land surveying! I’m majoring in geography in college and surveying is something I can see myself being interested in. It’s good to see some of the details of what the job entails and how they create land description plats. Do you know what the education requirements are for this career?

  9. I did not know what a land description plat was before reading this. From what I understand it is a map that shows the boundary of the land. Its nice that it is printed on a small size and accompanies a written land description of the same parcel.

  10. That’s interesting that one of the typical audience is the land professional with a limited surveying background and will rely more on the plat than the description. It’d probably be really important for them to understand exactly what’s on the land and where the boundaries are. They’d just need to find a surveyor who’d be able to explain it to them.

  11. […] an illustration is an important visual tool. No matter how well anyone describes anything, an accompanying picture or illustration always […]

  12. I like that a location survey can help one know exactly how much land they are purchasing. Two of my neighbors have been having disputes over their land, so they may want to both hire surveyors. Thanks so much for explaining land surveys.

  13. I’m glad you talked about land surveyors and how a professional must create a land description plat for you! Recently, my wife and I decided we’d like to buy a lot and build our home on it! We’ve heard a little about land surveyors and their key services, so we’ll be sure to look for one! We appreciate your advice on land surveying and how it helps map out a lot’s boundaries.

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