Let's start by answering the first part of the question above...what is a survey?
A survey is performed by a trained professional surveyor, and is a diagram/drawing of property boundaries, measurements/dimensions, easements, encroachments, etc. It precisely indicates a parcel's location on the earth. The survey will show where buildings and other structures are located on a property parcel and makes clear notations of where a property adjoins a neighboring property. Additionally, the survey will mark any points of access to the property parcel from adjacent roads and/or driveways.
Now to answer the second part of the question...do you need a survey?
If you are selling a property, it is often left up to the buyer to purchase a survey as a part of their due diligence investigations during their contract period. However, even a seller can benefit from a pre-listing survey. Encroachments, erroneous legal descriptions, utility easements, violations of setback lines, etc. can all affect your ability to convey clear title to a buyer. For example, if a neighbor has inadvertently placed anything across your property line (like a fence, shed, driveway, etc.), a survey will help indicate this type of encroachment so it can be addressed prior to listing the property for sale. It is always best to present accurate, verified information to the public when advertising your property for sale; likewise, a pre-listing survey helps ensure you are not stuck dealing with encroachment problems during a pending contract period. Delays during a pending contract can be costly, or may even cause the buyer to be able to walk away from the sale altogether. Even if you had a survey when you originally purchased the property, things can happen to create encroachments without your knowledge, especially if a lot of time has elapsed.
As a buyer, it is highly recommended that you get a survey during your due diligence period. If you are getting a mortgage loan to purchase the property, your lender may even require it. Even if your lender doesn't require it (or you are paying cash), your title insurance will not likely cover claims due to items that would have been shown on a survey. Additionally, a buyer would not have any claims against a surveyor for inaccuracies in a prior survey. So, it is in your best interest as a buyer to obtain a survey during your due diligence period, even if there is already one recorded in the Register of Deeds from a prior sale.