What is a plat map & how to read it
Property line maps — also known as “plats” or plat maps — show exactly where your land ends and your neighbor’s begin. Your home may be your castle, but without a moat and drawbridge, you'll want a plat map of your property to settle any confusion. It might not seem like a concern right now, especially if you're a new homeowner, but in the event of a dispute (or encroachment), you should have a plat map of your house and property and know how to read it.
Find out more about plats below, including how they work, how to find them and, just as importantly, how to make sense of them.
Plat maps defined
A plat is a map of a particular neighborhood, subdivision or tract of land, detailing where the original surveyors established property lines and separated each parcel or lot. Why does that matter? Because, you can use a plat map to see how far your property extends and where your land’s boundaries lie. It’s not quite as detailed as a land survey, but a plat map will give you a good sense of the dimensions and location of your property.
Civil engineers will draw up plat maps before any development or construction is done in the area and then make those plats available as public records with the county clerk. Your home’s plat map will likely come up when conducting a title search, along with the more detailed land survey, so you’ll know exactly where your property ends when buying a house. You don't have to wait to see one, though. Plat maps are readily available to the public through local government websites. While not all property will have a corresponding plat to review, if you’re moving to a developed subdivision or existing neighborhood, there should be one on file.
Property lot line maps: what's included (and what isn't)?
Arguably the most important nuggets of information you’ll find in a plat map are your property’s boundary lines. Plotting out exactly where each lot of land sits is the No. 1 reason these documents are drawn up. After all, if you’re buying a house, you’ll want to know exactly what your future property will look like. Depending on the level of detail included in your property line map, you might find other useful tidbits as well:
- Dimensions of your lot
- Directional positioning of your property
- Public and private roads
- Easements on the land
- Location of utilities and important infrastructure like sewer systems and water lines
- Notable environmental features located on or near the property
That’s a lot of info! There are plenty of things you won’t find on a plat map, though. The most notable omissions include:
- Other physical structures attached or adjacent to homes, like garages and driveways.
- Fences, pools and other structures on or lining the property
- Specific property dimensions down to units of measurement as small as feet or meters
About that last point: Your plat map likely will include approximate dimensions of the land or the size of your property measured in acres. Just don’t always expect to see a detailed breakdown of the length of your property lines or the distance from your lot to a public road. Land surveys will usually have those measurements, but that’s not always the case with plat maps.
4 types of plat maps you should know
You may encounter different types of plats depending on the characteristics of the property as well as your specific intentions as a buyer. These are the four main varieties you should familiarize yourself with:
- Plat of subdivision: Used when property is divided into smaller tracts of land
- Plat of consolidation: Used when adjacent properties are consolidated into a single, larger plot of land
- Correction plat (also known as an amendment plat): Used to fix minor errors in existing plat maps
- Vacating plat: Used to remove an existing map from record, often due to lack of development
Knowing each of these will help give you a sense of what’s contained within a plat map before you even take a look at it. That way, you’re less likely to get confused about the information presented in a plat — and believe us, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when reviewing these documents.
Why is a property line map of a house important for a homeowner?
Going through the homebuying process can sometimes feel like information overload. There are financial records, property histories, titles, appraisals, inspections reports, contracts and much more to sift through. Next to those important documents, a plat map may seem insignificant. But you should take the time to look up your new home’s plat map and really understand what the existing property boundaries might mean for you as a future homeowner.
While anyone buying a single-family house will certainly want to take a look at the property’s plat map, homebuyers looking at condos could find them helpful as well. Plat maps can be especially useful in a few key ways:
- Establish your property lines
- Identify easements on your property
- Assist property development
Establishes your property lines
As a homeowner, you need to know the boundaries of your property. If you want to build a fence, a tool shed or even a swing set, you first have to be sure you’re not infringing on your neighbors’ land. A plat map will tell you roughly where your property lines are so you don’t get too far along in the development process before realizing your mistake. It should be noted that if you do make any improvements to your property, your local governing body will ask to see the land survey — not the plat — beforehand.
That information will also be handy if one of your neighbors ignores those property boundaries and decides to build a structure that crosses over onto your land. Privacy fences are probably the most frequent causes of property line disputes, but trees, gardens, detached structures and even decks can straddle two properties at once. It’s important to dispute these issues as quickly as possible, because your neighbors could request an easement of prescription after enough time passes. That would essentially give them the legal cover to continue infringing on your property line for that specific purpose.
A plat map can help you nip these issues in the bud, because they’re easy to pull up and show to your neighbor. If the problem persists, then you’ll need to get your hands on the survey, which will give you all the ammo you need to fight such encroachments in court and establish your land’s boundaries.
Identifies easements on your property
That easement of prescription we just mentioned is one of many types of easements that might affect your land. An easement gives other people or organizations the legal right to access your property in select situations. By far the most common example is a utility easement, which would allow gas, water and phone companies to go onto your property to repair or maintain any infrastructure built there. Let’s say there’s a transformer on the corner of your lot. You can’t just turn away utility workers if they come onto your property to work on it.
There are plenty of other types of easements that aren’t focused on the communal good, though. Easements may give other people the right to access your private roads or cut through your yard to get to adjoining property. In some cases, those easements are attached to the land, so they’ll carry over from the previous homeowner. Checking out a plat to see what easements are in effect could save you some headaches and unexpected surprises later on down the line.
Assists property development
If you’re in the market to buy a new development, be sure to take a look at the area’s plat map first. Something you need to consider when building a house is how directional positioning might impact your home. Envisioning summer evenings lounging in your backyard and watching the sunset? That’s not going to happen if the back of your home faces east. Or maybe you want to place big bay windows in your master bedroom. No doubt you’ll enjoy a great view, but good luck getting a good night’s sleep if that side of the house is situated eastward and in direct line of the sunrise.
How to find property line maps of your property
Plat maps are matters of public record, so you should be able to readily view any documents that are relevant to your property. Actually tracking them down may be easier said than done if you don’t know where to look, though. Google Maps can’t help you here. You might get a rough idea of the property from looking at Google Maps, but you won’t be able to see more detailed information like where precisely your property lines sit. Here are the best places to start your search for your local plat map:
- County clerk
- County assessor
- Office of the recorder of deeds
Although you’ll have to schlep all the way to your county courthouse to get your hands on the physical plat map, you might be able to find a copy online. Some county and city governments have geographic information system (GIS) software on their websites, which you can use to view property line maps. So, it’s worth checking those out first before making the trip to the county clerk’s office. Often, it’s as simple as typing in your address into a search bar.
How to read plat maps
A property line map can look pretty confusing at first glance. You’ll likely notice that the actual “map” only takes up a portion of the document. Just as much space will be dedicated to various notes, charts and tables. Let’s review where to find relevant pieces of information on a plat map so you can make sense of it all:
- Legend: Like any map, a plat map legend tells you what each symbol and letter on the map means.
- Tracts: A plat may contain one tract or multiple tracts, each one containing its own set of lots.
- Lots: Subdivisions and other neighborhoods are broken up into different lots with the intention of building a home on each one. Every lot is assigned its own number to make them easy to identify.
- Public roads: Any public roads that either run through the subdivision or are adjacent to it will be clearly marked on the plat map.
- Private roads: Plat maps also show any private roads in the area and may contain information about easements attached to their use.
- Easements: Any easements affecting the area, including right of way, utility or drainage easements will likely show up on the plat.
- Preservation areas: You may find information about nearby nature preserves if the tract of land is situated next to these protected areas.
- Additional notes: Plat maps sometimes include extra information that may be relevant to developers, such as construction or excavation limitations.
Plat maps tell you exactly where the boundaries of your property lie, along with a bunch of other useful information. These documents can be pretty helpful if you need to settle a property line dispute with your neighbor without going to court, spot any easements on your land or see what kinds of building restrictions are in place.
Plat maps are pretty easy to track down. Your local government offices will almost certainly have physical documents on hand to look over. But you’re just as likely to find digital copies available to download or view on county government websites. Remember: There’s no such thing as being too informed when buying a house. If you want to learn more about your future property, then by all means, go check out its plat map first.