A 2021 Guide To Topographical Land Surveys & How Much They Cost

THS Concepts helps you understand what a topographical land survey is, why you might need one for your project and how much you can expect to pay.

Article By: Tom Ayre | Last Update: August 2021

In this article, we explain, in simple terms, what a topographical survey is, how it is undertaken and the key benefits in having one before starting a building project.

At the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of them and how much topographical surveys cost. If you are unsure on whether to get one before your building project then this article will hopefully explain why it is so useful and how it can save problems further down the line.

Chapters

What is a Topographical Survey?

A topographical survey, also known as a land survey or topographical land survey, measures, identifies and records the precise location and details of natural and manmade features within an area of land.

The data produced can be used to create contour maps, height maps, terrain maps, boundary maps and more. 

Land surveyors are, therefore, usually the first professionals on-site; whether a project is a new tunnel, a bridge or a house, contractors need surveyors to record and produce detailed drawings of the land and surrounding area.

When Are They Required?

Whether you are building a new house or a designing a new railway line, a topographical survey is essential when land is being developed.

Without accurate drawings and design data, it’s difficult to plan a project accurately and safely. The surveyed information allow designers to see exactly how the current site is arranged and includes accurate, co-ordinated positions and associated heights of items. 

Without a survey you may not know about important issues regarding your site that may be costly to fix further along the line. Examples include:

  • Building too close too something such as a boundary. Planning might be rejected!
  • Building too high from the ground, again, planning may be rejected.
  • Developing an area with lots of trees and vegetation. May be too expensive to clear?
  • Does the ground level change a lot? Moving earth is expensive so optimising this early on can help with costs.

Typical applications for topographical surveys include:

  • New build developments.
  • Infrastructure / engineering projects.
  • Boundary disputes.

Key Benefits

A topographical survey will help you design more effectively and assist in avoiding future problems and making your land as efficient as possible.

  • Optimising the positions for what you are designing such as new buildings and structures.
  • Avoiding potential planning application refusals.
  • Reducing potential costs by identifying objects that may cause delays to construction.

What Is Surveyed?

A topographical survey is as extensive as required. Usually, a client will have a good idea of what information they require. This is usually specified when instructing a surveying company to undertake the survey work. For instance, if you are working on repositioning boundary fences, survey items such as tree locations or inspection chambers may not be required.

A topographical land survey will pickup a number of different natural and artificial features. Examples of these include:

Natural Features

  • Spot heights of the land
  • Tree locations with spread & trunk diameter
  • Water features (ponds, waterways etc)

 

Artificial features 

  • Boundary locations
  • Building positions
  • Different surfaces (gravel, tarmac, grass etc)
  • Drains & invert levels
  • Inspection chambers (water, gas, electricity etc)
  • Kerb positions
  • Overhead lines (power, telephone etc)
  • Ridge & eaves heights of buildings
  • Street furniture (bins, post boxes etc)
 
If you are in need of guidance on what to survey for your project then RICS have a useful document “Measured surveys of land, buildings and utilities“.
Need A Survey?

THS Concepts undertake topographical surveys for Architects & designers looking to design their projects more effectively.

How Are Surveys Undertaken?

On Site Works

A topographical survey is usually carried out by a team of experienced surveyors, armed with equipment including total stations, GPS equipment, 3D Scanners, laser measurement devices and tape measures. A total station is a tripod-mounted device used by surveyors to accurately plot single points which can be joined into lines and arcs to form a drawing of a site.

The survey begins with the team placing their fixed setting out marker points using the GPS and total stations. The fixed markers usually come in the form of survey nails secured into the solid ground (concrete, brick, etc.) or reflective tape targets fixed to walls.

These reference points are used to recalculate the position of the survey equipment as it moves around the site. They are vital for allowing the survey to be “stitched” together correctly from one set-up position to the next.

Using a total station in combination with taking notes and hand measurements, the surveyor will begin to record data. The total station uses laser technology to accurately record positions points in plan and height. Using a combination of 2 points, a line can be drawn on the total station to begin building up a detailed picture. A good example is taking a point on either end of a wall and drawing a line between the two.

In some instances, it may be necessary to use a prism mounted on a pole to pick up features. Using a modern robotic total station as the base unit, a surveyor can move around the site with the total station turning to follow as they move. Additionally, the surveyor can use a wireless computer unit to take points without looking through the lens of the total station. This often makes the process a lot more efficient.

Off-Site Work

Once the required information has been recorded on-site, the surveyor returns to their office to draw up the survey using industry-specific CAD software. In our instance, we use AutoCAD.

The recorded data is exported from the total station/GPS equipment and saved onto a computer. The surveyor uses CAD software to begin tidying up and producing a plan view drawing of the land. The process usually involves joining lines together such as the corners of buildings or adding symbols such as trees. Height markers will also be added showing the levels of important elements such as the ground, building ridge heights, watercourse levels etc.

Once the base plan drawing has been produced, the surveyor begins to produce other drawings such as elevations and sections of the site. When all drawings have been completed, the surveyor will ask for a final check by a colleague before sending the CAD drawing and associated PDFs to the client. The client may give feedback to where additional detail may be required or where details can be relaxed. Drawings may be revised before the final copy is agreed.

screenshot of a topographical survey CAD drawing
Topographical CAD Drawing

What Do The Drawings Look Like?

Topographical survey drawings are typically produced in a CAD software package such as AutoCAD. The information from the on site works is processed and drawn up in an organised manner that allows future manipulation by others an easy task.

Once the CAD drawings have been produced they are usually exported as PDF electronic drawings. This means that the survey information can be viewed on a PC screen without software or even printed to scale. Drawings are usually produced at a minimum paper size of A3.

Looking to Get a Topographical Survey?

THS Concepts undertake topographical land surveys for Architects & designers looking to get their projects off to the best start.

How Much Does a Topographical Survey Cost?

In this section, we explain how much a typical topographical survey and production of CAD drawings can cost along with what aspects affect the overall price of the work.

This section will hopefully shed light on how much a topographic (topo/land) survey costs, how they are quoted for, and what you can do to reduce the cost of your survey.

In this article we discuss the following:

  • How much does a topographical survey cost?
  • How to save money when obtaining topographical survey quotes.
  • Example pricing that THS Concepts have charged.

Typical Fees

In the UK land surveying companies typically charge between £300 and £1000 for a day’s topographical surveying work in the field.

Once they have returned from the site and are back in the office the information that has been collected whilst on site will be drawn up using computer-aided design (CAD) software such as AutoCAD.

A typical cost to draw up the topographical survey would be between £300 and £600 per day. As a rough rule of thumb, for every day on-site for 1 surveyor, expect a day in the office to draw up the topographical drawings.

Most sites we encounter are residential, offices, or small parcels of land. Typically these take 1 day to survey and1 day to produce the drawings. This would give an approximate price of £1000 + VAT.

What Affects The Costs?

Travel Time

The cost of the survey team traveling to the site will need to be factored into the quote. If you are in a densely populated area then you will pay a lot less than say, someone on a remote island as the travel costs will be significantly higher. 

Surveying Time

The number of hours or days to survey a piece of land can vary based on several factors, these include:

  • The extent of the land to be surveyed.
  • How overgrown the area of land is.
  • The level of detail you require.
  • The level of accuracy you require.
  • The location of the plot of land.
Office Time

Once back in the office the hours/days to draw a topographical survey heavily depend on:

  • The extent of the survey, is there a lot of information to show?
  • The detail required. If there is a lot of features to show then this takes time to complete.
  • The desired CAD output, do you need elements in 3D or 2D, etc.

The topographical survey company undertaking the quote will typically work out how many days to survey on-site and draw up in the office. They will then produce a quote based on these time frames. Most land surveying companies typically charge VAT which is another cost to factor into your costs.

Example Survey Costs

Here we give you three examples of how much we charged to undertake three fairly standard topographical surveys. The land surveying costs quoted included a site survey and producing a topographical survey drawing in CAD and PDF format.

Please note that the surveying costs quoted are heavily based on the distance to the site. Our travel costs are charged from our office in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.

Residential Site
£750 + VAT

aerial photo of a house showing the boundaries of a topographical survey

Parcel Of Land
£1850 + VAT

aerial photo showing a red lined area for a topographical survey

Parcel Of Land
£3300 + VAT

Topographical survey extent image large area

How To Save Money?

Working out how much a topographical survey can cost is a difficult task for someone looking for a quote as well as the company pricing the works. Many factors can influence the price of a survey such as:

  • Extent of the land you need to survey.
  • The level of detail you require.
  • The location of the works.
  • In this section we give you simple tips that will help you get better value topographical survey quotes. This should either reduce your costs, or give you a survey drawings that are exactly what you need.
Saving Money - Infographic
Tip #1 - Specify Your Exact Survey Requirements

A topographical survey specification provided to your survey providers is extremely important.

The specification document allows you to list out your exact survey requirements. The specification document can help save money by allowing you to list out your exact survey requirements. This could save site survey time and office hours for the survey company, in turn, this should reduce your costs!

The level of detail required can have a massive impact on your topographical land survey costs. If you need a large area of land surveyed then a good tip is to specify the areas where you need more detail and where you need less.

There is sometimes no need to survey all areas in high detail. This will save your surveyors’ time and ultimately lower your costs.

When you receive a quote from the surveying company, check that it contains all the relevant information you need for your survey. It’s crucial your company has understood your specification – you don’t want them coming back and asking for more money because they either didn’t understand your specification or they misunderstood it.

It is also worth checking terms and conditions to check there are no additional fees for revisions to the drawing or returning to the site if they haven’t picked something up correctly.

If you are looking for a topographical survey specification document then please refer to the guide from RICS “Measured Survey Of Land, Buildings and Utilities“.

Tip #2 - Reduce The Size of the Land To Be Surveyed

Sometimes it might not actually be necessary to survey the whole of the property / extent of the land. Reducing the required survey area will save the survey company time on site and in the office. Thus reducing costs.

If you are building an extension, for instance, it may be that you can reduce your survey area to within 10 metres of the existing structure. There is no point in surveying all the way to the end of the garden if this data isn’t going to be used.

Practical Tip: Utilise a tool such as Google Earth to mark up a satellite image. This way you can show exactly what you need surveying and what you do not.

Aerial image of a survey extent for a topographical survey
Large area to be surveyed
Aerial image of a survey extent for a topographical survey
Reduced area to be surveyed
Tip #3 - Can You Make the Survey Process More Efficient?

The location and type of land that needs surveying can make a huge difference in your land survey costs. For instance, surveying a big open field in comparison to a remote forest with limited visibility.

If you have an area of dense overgrowth that needs surveying a good idea may be to reduce overgrowth making the site more open. Your surveyor will thank you and your bank balance will too! At the quotation stage ensure you send some example photos to show how clear the area is. This might not necessarily show on Aerial imagery which is what the survey company usually price their quotes from.

Practical Tip: If it is cost effective, reduce the foliage where possible and make the site more open where you can. Take photos of the site before and send these with your quote request to show the survey company the lay of the land at ground level.

Topographical survey on a railway line that is overgrown
Heavily overgrown - more difficult to survey.
Topographical survey on a clear railway
A easier survey cleared of vegetation.
Tip #4 - Check The Surveyors Credentials

A topographical land survey is an important part of any building project and serves as a key component when planning out your land development projects. If you want to save on future costs then ensure the land survey company you employ is:

  • Experienced Are they a new company that has just started out? This may be a sign of inexperience.
  • Suitably insured If things do go wrong then it’s comforting knowing that the company you are dealing with is insured.
  • See drawing examples Have a look at examples of work they have produced, does it come across as professional?

 

Practical Tip: A legitimate survey company should be able to demonstrate their levels of insurance, terms, and conditions and provide examples of their work. If you are unsure about a company then checking HMRC companies lookup site can sometimes yield worrying aspects about a company or its directors.

Tips On Instructing Land Surveying Companies

When appointing a land survey company you must choose the right company to avoid future problems as a result of poor drawings and communication. Before the appointment, we recommend checking the following:

  • Experience: Land Surveying is a complicated task. Surveyors are required to operate complex survey devices and then produce clear, accurate drawings to be presented to the client. An experienced survey team knows to avoid problems and get the work completed efficiently and to a high standard.
  • Size of company: Sometimes a “one-man-band” company is perfect for your requirements. On balance, however, this can cause problems with getting answers quickly, revisiting the site etc. Furthermore, a company with only 1 or 2 employees may leave clients waiting as they are regularly out of the office, unavailable to talk or not around to check or reissue drawings.
  • Insurances: When things go wrong, there can be serious financial implications. Check your land surveying company has the correct professional indemnity insurance for their work and that the cover they provide is more than suitable for your requirements. A reputable company should also carry an employer’s liability and public liability insurance.
  • General feel: Do employees professionally present themselves? Usually, gut instinct is helpful to get a feel for how easy it will be to work with a company. Red flags that raise suspicions include:
  • No address on the website: Can surveyors be tracked down if things go wrong? A survey company should not be operating from a PO box, for instance
  • Much cheaper than others: Like most things in life, you pay for what you get. A very low quote in comparison to other companies may result in poor workmanship and customer service.
  • Telephone/email manner: Are your phone and email messages answered promptly? If not then this may reveal an overworked/understaffed company
  • Poorly designed website: This is usually a sign of a company who aren’t very technology savvy or aren’t too interested in the user experience on-site.
Looking to Get a Topographical Survey?

THS Concepts undertake topographical land surveys for Architects & designers looking to get their projects off to the best start.