Don’t Be Hasty: Get A Surveyor

Hiring a professional surveyor before you buy could be the most important decision you'll make. Don't be hasty, get a surveyor.

When it comes to boats, Peter Berman is no novice. The author of Outfitting the Offshore Cruising Sailboat, Berman has 45 years of cruising experience in nearly a dozen vessels of different types. Last fall, he was in the market for a boat when he found a midsize cruiser from a well-known manufacturer that was advertised as an “outstanding value, in very good condition.” The broker provided a detailed year-old “insurance survey” that found the boat in well-above-average condition, without any deficiencies. The engine had low hours and the boat had been kept under cover. The boat looked lightly used, appeared to have been well taken care of, and the price was terrific — Berman was eager to go ahead. You might think that someone with his vast boat-buying experience wouldn’t think twice about closing the deal right then, but before going any further, he hired his own marine surveyor — this one a member of the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS) — and an engine surveyor.

When the boat was hauled, the surveyor found massive electrolysis of the underwater running gear, severe blistering over a third of the hull, no bonding system, and some 60 other deficiencies. When the engine surveyor tried to run the engine, it overheated, and the generator and thrusters didn’t work right. Disappointed, yet grateful, Berman passed on the boat. “At day’s end, the money spent by having both engine and hull surveys were well-spent, even for an experienced old hand,” said Berman.

Boat brokers often say that a boat’s cosmetics — and buyers’ emotions — are what sell it. If Berman had bought that boat based on his own reactions, he would have ended up with huge headaches and a lot of repair costs. But he was experienced enough to know how important an informed, professional opinion is when making a big-dollar decision when your heart is already engaged. Here’s how to avoid ending up with just a pretty boat — and a lot of regrets.

Get A Survey

It’s easy to fall in love with an appealing sheer line, shimmering gelcoat, and gleaming teak, but this is not a time to let your heart guide you; you need an objective marine survey to avoid buying with rose-colored sunglasses on. A marine survey is an independent evaluation of a boat’s condition and value, performed by a qualified inspector who has no stake in the outcome. In fact, even experienced surveyors will usually hire a fellow professional to do the survey on a boat they’re considering, in order to keep emotion out of the equation. During the recent economic downturn, many boats sat unused and had minimal maintenance. Now that these boats are beginning to sell again, a professional evaluation, devoid of the excitement of boat-buying, is even more critical. Here’s what a good survey provides:

  • The condition of the boat and its equipment: A marine survey gives a snapshot of the condition of the boat’s visible components and accessible structures at the time of the inspection. A survey provides a list of deficiencies as well as needed repairs and focuses on safety. Deficiencies in a survey can be used to renegotiate the sales price or scrap the deal altogether if needed repairs are too expensive or complicated.
  • The value of the boat: Surveyors use pricing guides along with their vast experience in valuing boats. A seller or broker may think a boat has a specific worth, but until a survey is performed, those figures are only guesses. Banks and insurance companies use the survey value to determine loan and insurance hull value amounts. This is also a great tool for price negotiations and can easily pay for the cost of the survey.
  • A budget for repairs and maintenance: Nearly any boat will have some defects and deficiencies; knowing what they are beforehand makes it easier to know how much to budget for the future. Surveys typically provide a list of recommended, prioritized repairs. The most important ones are critical to safety and usually your insurance company will require them to be completed. The rest are things that can be done as you find time and money.

Get The Right Survey

There are three main types of surveys done on a boat you’re considering buying, and each requires a specialized professional to do them well.

  • A condition and valuation survey (C&V) covers the hull and structures as well as the boat’s systems. This type of thorough survey is usually required for insurance and financing, and is sometimes referred to as a pre-purchase survey. Whether your insurance company or lender requires it or not, you should always get one before buying. A proper C&V survey requires the boat to be hauled so the hull and underwater gear can be inspected. A good hull surveyor inspects a boat top to bottom, fore and aft. They’ll look at the hull and deck and determine by sounding with a hammer and moisture meter whether there are voids or delamination, and they can identify places in the core that may eventually rot and become soft (and expensive to repair) before they’re detectable by a buyer. A surveyor checks the condition of AC and DC electrical systems, plumbing and through-hulls, deck hardware, propane and fuel systems, steering and controls, and safety equipment. A proper marine survey will be an in-depth written report that evaluates the boat according to U.S. Coast Guard regulations, as well as American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. A knowledgeable surveyor will also know if a specific make has a history of major problems.
  • Engine surveys cover the operation and condition of propulsion and generator engines. Typically, they include inspection of controls, electrical, cooling, and exhaust systems, as well as engine mounts. Compression, engine, and exhaust temperatures are also checked, and engine surveys typically include tests of oil samples, too. But how do you know if you need one? Alison Mazon, a surveyor in Portland, Oregon, is one of a handful of hull surveyors who also do engine surveys. “An engine survey is warranted for particularly expensive or complex engines, and those with obvious lack of maintenance,” says Mazon. “Many larger engines built since about 2006 have computers that can be read by trained personnel with the right equipment. A quick scan for computer faults may be a sign a more detailed analysis is needed.”
  • A rigging survey looks at the condition of a sailboat’s mast and boom and associated rigging. Inspections are made of attachment points, welds, standing and running rigging, and the mast step. Rigging surveyors either go up the mast or inspect the rig when it’s off the boat. Whether a rigging survey is needed depends on the age, prior use of the rig, and its intended purpose. Red flags that would signal the need for a rigging survey include a rig more than 10 years old, frayed stays, cracked swages, weeping chainplates, and turnbuckles that are bottomed out. The rig also needs to be surveyed if the boat will be used offshore or heavily raced.

Get The Right Surveyor

You wouldn’t hire a plumber to rewire your house; the same goes for surveyors. Finding a qualified marine surveyor or a specialist is a matter of knowing where to look.

  • Marine surveyors are not regulated or licensed, so virtually anyone can call himself a surveyor, and many unqualified people do. A good indicator of competence is a surveyor who has professional affiliations with the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), plus either the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) or the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS). 
  • Choose a surveyor who is familiar with the type of boat you’re interested in. Some specialize in power, some in sail, others in wooden or metal boats. Never hire a marine surveyor referred to you by the seller or broker! BoatUS has heard a long list of complaints that start with, “I hired a surveyor recommended by the seller … .” A surveyor should have absolutely no affiliations with boat brokers, dealers, boat repair shops, or others whose living depends on the sale or repair of boats — especially the one you’re about to buy.
  • Don’t rely upon a survey prepared for a previous owner, even if it was done recently. A survey is a snapshot in time and a boat could have run aground or suffered other unnoticed damage since the last survey.
  • Engine surveys are typically performed by someone with vast experience in repairing gas and diesel engines. The best bet is to hire a certified technician who works for an authorized dealer. That way, they’ll be able to research the boat’s warranty and dealer service work, too. Hire an engine surveyor with experience on the make and model of the engine you need inspected.
  • Rigging surveyors tend to be a little harder to find, but most marine surveyors can recommend one. They typically make their living building and repairing masts, booms, and associated rigging.

Attend The Survey Inspection

Surveyors welcome prospective buyers to be present at the survey. There’s no better way to learn about your new boat than watching a professional methodically dig through it. The surveyor’s notes will be more meaningful if they’re able to discuss with you what they’re examining. They’ll also answer questions that might not be significant enough to be included in the written report, and can tell you about problems they’ve seen on similar boat that you can be on the lookout for. Pay attention. You may learn that the face is not as handsome as you thought.

How Much Do They Cost?

Marine surveyors are independent businesses and can charge whatever they want. But a rule of thumb for fiberglass production boats is $15-$20 per foot. Prices go up for wood and metal boats, older boats, and large boats. Cost of haulout also needs to be considered. Keep in mind that a survey for a mid-sized boat will take several hours, so if you’re going to be present, plan accordingly. The cost of an engine survey depends on the size, complexity, and number of engines, ranging from $200 for small engines to over $1,000 for large twin diesels. Rigging surveys may cost up to $500 for a 35-foot boat.

Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

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