How Important Are Plat Maps When Buying Vacant Land?

Are land plat maps something most vacant land investors look at prior to purchasing a property? I feel like these could include some valuable information, especially with regard to road access or easements associated with a property. For the county I'm currently working in, the plats can only be reviewed by visiting the courthouse in person. This isn't an issue for this particular county, as it is within driving distance for me. However, for investors who have experience doing deals out of state, is there a different method of accessing the plat or another way to access the same information that the plat provides?

I see plat maps in my title searches from time to time (when I have an abstractor pull the actual documents and I review them). Sometimes they're helpful... but they can also be very old, depending on how long ago the subdivision was platted out.

Usually what I'll find there is confirmation of the property's size and how many lots my parcel consists of. There might be some easement information in there, but only if that easement existed back at the time the subdivision was created. If the easement was created after that point in time, I would have to get a survey (and the surveyor would need to see all the relevant title work) in order to show me that information.

All in all, it's helpful to have when it's there, but it's also not the most conclusive set of information either. If I really care about seeing every relevant bit of information, the plat maps usually aren't enough to give me 100% confidence by themselves.

Thanks for the response @retipsterseth. That's helpful to know. It sounds like the plat maps could be helpful but aren't necessarily the most reliable source of information.

I wanted to refresh this thread, as I'm currently working on a potential deal that involves a property with dirt/gravel road access. I spoke with the County Clerk's office, and they said the only way to confirm legal access/easement would be by reviewing the deed at the courthouse. Would the deed provide different information than the plat map, or are these essentially the same thing?

Also, I'm wondering if anyone can provide general insight/experience on how they approach potential landlocked properties that have private road access. Is a survey the only way to confirm legal access, or are there other methods investors use to gain a level of comfort that the property does actually have legal access?

@hholladay - plat maps are reliable at a certain point in time, but as things change (new easements added, etc), you won't find those latest updates in the original plat maps unless those plat maps are recreated to show all the changes and recorded again in the county records... so you need to understand what plat maps can and can't tell you, based on when they were created and recorded.

When the county clerk is telling you to review the deed at the courthouse (which isn't the most helpful explanation)... the information you're looking for might be included in the deed, but it could also be included in a separate document that was recorded before or after the latest deed was. This is part of why surveyors request full copies of the title history before they start their work, because they will use this information to make sure their drawing reflects ALL of the changes to date, so you're seeing the most accurate portrayal of the property.

So, to answer your question, no - the deed and the plat map are not the same thing. A deed is a written declaration of who owns the property. The plat map is a drawing that shows (visually) where the property is located... and in order for that to be reliable, it needs to be done by a surveyor who had all the information when they drew out the property.

The good news is, most of the time, properties and easements don't change that much over time. A plat map from 50 years ago could very well show a perfectly accurate picture of what the property looks like today... this happens a lot in rural areas, actually. Even so, I explain all of this (above) just to illustrate the differences between the two.

Disclaimer: I'm not an attorney. The information above isn't legal advice.

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@retipsterseth - Got it. I think I was mixing up my understanding of the deed and plat map, so that really helps clarify when and how these documents can be helpful.

Considering the parcel may very well be landlocked. I decided to move forward with making a minimal offer on the property to gauge seller motivation. If they decide to accept the preliminary offer, I'll dig further into some of these avenues to see if I can get a better understanding of the legal access to the parcel before I move forward with the closing.

@hholladay, if your offer is accepted (or countered), you might also want to look into "Easement by Necessity" laws in the particular state where your subject property is located. This previous thread here on RETipster Forum had some discussion about Easement by Necessity, and how it varies in a few different states, at least, but in Florida, for instance, and Arizona apparently too, they say there's really no such thing as a landlocked property, because you can legally force an easement through a neighboring parcel, by law. There would be legal costs in doing so (unless @Jarenb or others have discovered a way to do it without a lawyer), so this is probably only a viable strategy if the value of the property is high enough to justify the cost, and I expect you'd still want to factor those additional legal costs into any offer to purchase the property so it's good that you adjusted your offer down based on the current lack of access, regardless.

Other states, such as Virginia, have a higher bar that must be cleared in order to win an easement by necessity, so it's very much a locality-specific strategy.

@dl7573 Thanks for the additional insight. I haven't heard anything back from the seller since sending the offer, but either way, it's valuable information to know moving forward.

Coincidentally, this property is actually in Virginia, so it sounds like gaining easement access may be more difficult than in other states. Doing a Google search seems to confirm this, as it appears there are several different conditions that need to be met, including the parcel at one time being part of a larger parcel which had public access. I'm guessing the only way to confirm this would be by looking at courthouse docs, as discussed earlier in this thread, or having a title search performed. Based on Google Earth's historical feature, it appears that the dirt road leading to this parcel has been there since 1994, so not sure if that increases the likelihood that the property may in fact have easement access.