Boat Surveys Checklist

Buying a boat can be a trying process, even if you’ve perused the many articles in our Buying a Boat section, and thoroughly educated yourself about the ins and outs of this experience. You’ve probably already learned that a boat survey is often helpful and/or necessary.

Before digging into the details, let’s make a checklist of the things covered in a boat survey:

  • Verify the boat’s identity, via HIN (hull identification) number and state or federal registration.
  • Visually inspect the hull for flaws or damage.
  • Audibly inspect the hull and deck for flaws or damage by gently tapping with a hammer, and listening for differences in the sound it makes.
  • Test all around the hull and deck, especially in suspect areas, with a moisture meter (note that moisture meters can be difficult to interpret, and the fool even the pros sometimes).
  • Inspect the hull-to-deck joint wherever possible, inside and out.
  • Inspect the powerplant and if applicable, complete a compression test. Remember that some professional surveyors cover powerplants and others do not; in many cases this is best left to a mechanic.
  • Inspect the other parts of the propulsion system and/or running gear.
  • Look at the interior spaces of the boat and check for damage and/or wear.
  • Check the fuel system, from the tank(s) to the engine(s).
  • Test the electrical system and all of its components ranging from navigational electronics to lights.
  • Inspect all through-hull fittings and seacocks.
  • Test the plumbing systems and all of its components, ranging from washdown pumps to commodes.
  • When and where possible, inspect belowdecks stringers and bulkheads for structural condition.
  • In the case of sailboats, inspect the rigging and associated gear (winches, lines, etc).
  • Perform a sea trial.
  • Create a general report on the boat’s overall condition, state of maintenance, and appearance.
  • Create a list of the boat’s equipment, indicating the condition of said equipment.
  • Create a report on the boat’s major systems, such as propulsion, electrical, etc.
  • Create a list of items in need of immediate repairs or replacement for the safe operation of the boat.

That’s quite a list—and it’s also rather superficial. In truth surveying a boat is a complex endeavor that requires training, experience, and professionalism. That’s why professional marine surveyors are accredited by one of two organizations: the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS) and the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS).

SAMS and NAMS were established to give boat buyers confidence that the surveyors they credential are reliable pros.

That’s not to say that a knowledgeable boater can’t perform a survey of their own that still has value. But as is true with many things we all do on our own when we could hire a professional, you risk missing important items that a full-timer may pick up on. And those accrediting organizations require their members to meet strict standards on technical and ethical levels. You can read up on some of the details and nuances professional surveyors check for in What Marine Surveyors Look For.

Is a Professional Boat Survey Necessary?

In many situations, having a survey performed on a small, inexpensive boat would be considered overkill. In those cases, it’s usually most appropriate to simply do the best job you can, personally or perhaps with the help of a knowledgeable friend. But as the cost of a boat grows, so does risk. And at some levels, a professional survey and report will be required by banks making the loan on a boat. The same may be true for insurance companies that will be covering the boat, as we point out in Buying Boat Insurance? Get a Survey. When selling a boat it can be advantageous to already have a survey in-hand, to show to potential buyers. But again, to satisfy banks and insurance companies, the survey will likely have to be performed by a SAMS- or NAMS-accredited pro.

boat surveys checklist
Many people would consider it unnecessary to have a professional survey performed on a small bowrider, like this 16’ Bayliner. But as the buyer, you’ll certainly want to do a survey of your own to the best of your abilities.

One boat survey item we do want to circle back on: in our checklist, the sea trial got just one bullet point. But in the real world, it deserves to have some added emphasis. Taking a boat off the dock and operating it will tell you volumes about how much you will or will not like it as the future unfolds. Is it loud, or quiet when underway? Do you have to fight the steering wheel? Did that wake you just hit rattle your fillings a bit more than you expected? These questions and many, many more will be answered with a spin around the bay. And the longer you spend off the dock, the more you’ll learn about the boat. Check out Sea Trials, to get some pointers on making the most of the experience and utilizing our sea trial checklist.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld,, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.