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During the early stages of a land development project or real estate transaction, a project owner makes many important decisions. One of these decisions is selecting a land surveyor. Because a land surveyor’s work will form the basis for other professionals’ work on the project, choosing the correct Land Surveyor is crucial to the success of the project or transaction. 

Land surveying companies come in 3 basic sizes. For our purposes, we will refer to them as MinnowsBarracudas, and Whales. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, we can make a few helpful generalizations about these categories.

Minnows

Minnows are the smallest surveying firms. They are usually what we call “one-man shops” in the surveying industry. In some cases, they have one full-time Licensed Land Surveyor and one part-time employee who assists with drafting and fieldwork. In some instances, these one-man shops are just “moonlighting” surveyors with a regular salary and health care benefits provided by their primary employer. With low overhead costs, a “moonlighting” surveyor will be able to charge lower rates.

Here are a few characteristics typical of minnow surveying companies:

  • They typically serve a single “discipline.” As surveying has grown more complex, one-man shops are limited in the range of services they can competently provide.
  • They sometimes operate without business insurance or professional liability insurance. This leaves their clients without protection if they make a significant mistake.
  • They often advertise on “home improvement” websites and may not maintain a physical location or business address. Contacting them with issues in the future can be very difficult or impossible.
  • They lack the interest or financial resources to invest in modern equipment, software, and other technology.
  • They tend to have clients that will wait for a survey for a lower price, so they often have long backlogs.
  • They only have the bandwidth to handle small projects.
  • Most minnows deal with their clients a single time. Their relationships with clients tend to be transactional and not long-term.
  • Minnows in the surveying world often perform surveys of single-family homes, or “lot surveys”. These surveys are done for a low fee and with a long wait time. Most homeowners are looking at the bottom line. Most of the time they don’t urgently need a fence survey and may not understand the risks of hiring a land surveyor without the proper insurance coverage and professional practices.

Barracudas

A barracuda is a mid-sized surveying company. Typically, they employ teams of 5 to 50 people directed by one or two licensed land surveyors. They often specialize in a few disciplines of land surveying. These firms may also have access to additional professional services besides surveying, like civil engineering, architecture, landscape design and environmental engineering.

Here are a few characteristics typical of barracuda surveying companies:

  • They offer a small bundle of related services to their clients.
  • They typically carry both business insurance and professional liability insurance.
  • They have the resources to make modest investments in equipment, software, and other technology.
  • They keep a relatively low overhead. Their overhead is higher than a minnow but much less than a whale. A barracuda surveying company is likely paying overhead costs for things like an office, a website, and an administrative assistant.
  • They have the capability to handle small clients and large projects.
  • Clients typically deal directly with the licensed surveyors supervising the work. This close relationship necessitates the surveyor to provide good client service.

Whales

Whales are the largest of surveying companies. They manage teams of 50 to 1,000 people. These teams often work across multiple geographic regions.

Here are a few characteristics typical of whale surveying companies:

  • They offer a multitude of services to their clients.
  • They typically carry both business insurance and professional liability insurance.
  • They have the resources to make major investments in equipment, software, and other technology. Internal politics and slow decision-making can bleed out the benefits of this investment.
  • They run a very high overhead. This overhead pays for things like offices in urban centers and large numbers of support staff. It also includes the resources needed to manage a large bureaucracy.
  • They have the capability to handle large clients and huge projects. Therefore, small clients and small projects are less appealing.
  • Clients of the whale (especially small clients) don’t typically deal with important decision-makers. They may rarely talk directly to the licensed land surveyor in charge of their project.
  • Because of administrative bloat and inertia, whales move slowly. Decisions take a long time and decision-making frameworks are rigid.

Now that we have classified the differences in the size of a Land Surveying firm, it’s time to help you figure out how to best choose the right sized Land Surveying firm for you. You must:

  • Understand your project and have a basic idea of how complex it is.
  • Determine what is more important – Value or Cost.
  • Consider what type of relationship you need with your Land Surveyor.

1) Understanding your project – What are you trying to do?

Are you trying to build a fence around your house? Are you trying to subdivide an agricultural property used for commercial purposes? Are you trying to build a giant stadium in the heart of downtown? Each of these projects requires a different type of land surveying company. If you are just putting up a fence, a minnow might work well. If you are subdividing an agricultural parcel, then a barracuda would be a great fit. If you want to build a stadium downtown, you might need a whale.

2) How complex is my project?

Complex projects need teams with three things: experience, bandwidth, and depth of knowledge. A small one-man shop isn’t going to do a great job building a stadium downtown. He doesn’t have the physical resources and you can’t keep the expertise needed in one human brain. 

3) Do I want a team that is fat and happy, or lean and mean?

If you are very concerned about getting value (bang for your buck), whale survey companies are a bad choice. They have the wrong incentives to stay lean and mean. Whales bury hidden costs in their hourly rates. The costs they hide are for things like the fancy office. Don’t pay for your surveyor’s weekend business meetings at a luxury beach resort if you don’t need a big team.