WTH: Why The Hell Are You Surveying So Cheap?

Dear Mr. Cheap Surveyor,

I just got off the phone with one of your newest property survey clients. Evidently he called me because he thought your price was too high. I didn’t know that till I spent an hour measuring and figuring and estimating what it would take to do the job. I talked to my field surveyor and got him to look at it with me. It’s 53 acres of recently cut-over woods, with a creek along one side (1600 LF), a dirt road on one side (2200 LF) and 3800 LF of woods lines. (See the picture above.) And, the site is two hours from my field guy’s office.

Not knowing that he had talked to anyone else prior to calling me (had I known I couldn’t even have talked to him legally because of QBS) I gave him my best price of $4,100 to $4,600. He let out a yelp. “Wooo, I thought the other guy was high andhe quoted about half that.” I laughed out loud. “You’ve got to be kidding me” I said.

So, Mr. Cheap, I’d really like to know how you keep your costs so low that you’re able to charge $0.30 per linear foot on average for the same survey. That was the low end of what I priced work at in 1989, when I started practicing land surveying.

Some things that happened in 1989:

  • Apple introduced a new portable computer. The retail price was $5,800.
  • The first of 24 satellites of the Global Positioning System (GPS) were placed into orbit.
  • The Energizer Bunny replaced Mary Lou Retton as company spokesperson.
  • DNA genetic evidence was first allowed as admissible evidence in court.

Some cost related items in 1989 compared to today:

  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average was $2,753 then, today it closed above $18,300.
  • The average income per year was $27,450.00, in 2015 it was $44,600.
  • The average monthly rent was $420, this year it’s $1,300
  • The average price for a new car, $15,350, today it’s $33,560.
  • 1 gallon of gas was $0.97, today it’s $2.22.
  • The minimum wage was $3.35, today it’s $7.25.

Are you recognizing a pattern here yet? Lot’s of things are at least doubling since 1989.

There is this thing called the Inflation Rate that I want to introduce to you. The Inflation Rate is a way to boil down all of the costs of different things over the years in today’s’ dollars. Or, how far does my dollar go today compared to a certain year in the past. Using the Inflation Calculator, since 1989, the US Inflation Rate has caused what cost $0.30 in 1989 to cost $0.58 in 2016 dollars, a 98% increase. That’s about double, matching our pattern above.

So, why are you charging 1989 prices for land surveying in 2016?

Cheap Surveyor, Cheap Survey

Now you may have been charging $0.15/linear foot in 1989 (which would have been 1977 pricing then.) You may also think that I was charging too much in 1989. Well, before I worked on my own, I worked with other surveyors and had a pretty good idea what prices were then. I also knew how much I had to pay my crew, how much their health insurance cost, how much I contributed to their 401 K plans, what gas cost, my rent, and what the truck payment was.

I’m not saying you can’t charge whatever you want for your work. Heck I’ve even done work for free in the past, voluntarily. We all have occasion to help someone who needs it every now and then. It’s called charity. This was not the case today.

Now, I’ve made the assumption that you’re doing quality work. Maybe that’s assuming too much. I know of a few folks who work for pennies that are worth pennies. I don’t really know you at all so I can’t comment. Quality isn’t something we as professionals can negotiate. The landowners we deal with should expect that a licensed surveyor will be able to turn out a survey that would close on itself, and represent the actual conditions of the property boundaries. If your surveys don’t do that, you’re cheating your clients.

The best example I have of quality is the difference between the 1-Ply Toilet Paper you find in lots of public bathrooms like Walmart or McDonalds and what you probably buy for your house. I don’t skimp on toilet paper. Quality determines whether you have crap on your hand after use or not.

Bottom line, you are selling yourself short, very short. And, leaving that much money on the table is kind of ignorant. Think about what it’s worth for someone to have a survey of their land. Think a little more highly of your profession, of yourself and your employees.


J. Keith Maxwell, PE, PLS

USA Land Surveyor


J. Keith Maxwell is a professional land surveyor and professional engineer in Alabama. He frequently runs into other surveyors who don’t think their work is worthy of a “living wage.” He also buys top quality toilet paper for he and his guests.