Boat Surveyors: A Buyer’s Guide

Purchasing a boat is a process that shares some similarities to buying a home or car, but with some important differences. While buying a new boat is fairly straightforward, 80% of boats for sale today are pre-owned. That makes the purchase more complicated, because you’ll need to ascertain the condition of a used boat in order to arrive at a fair market value on a vessel that may have been in use for multiple decades. This is where the boat survey becomes a critical part of the boat buying process.

Working with a marine boat surveyor is always a wise choice.
Working with a marine boat surveyor is always a wise choice.

What Are Boat Surveys And What Do They Cover?

Only after an offer has been made and accepted on a boat, can the process of evaluation begin in earnest. A variety of surveys are usually scheduled including an in-water survey, a haul-out/bottom survey, an engine survey and the sea trial (test drive), which is the test drive and usually a part of the survey done on the same day.

Hiring a marine surveyor might be money well spent. Photo courtesy of Performance Marine Surveyors.
Hiring a marine surveyor might be money well spent. Photo courtesy of Performance Marine Surveyors.

The most common type of boat survey is the condition and value (C&V) survey that is usually done for a buyer to ascertain fair market value of a vessel. It should include an evaluation of the hull, deck and structure as well as the boat’s systems and should be done by an accredited surveyor. This pre-purchase survey is a basic and limited inspection of the condition and operation of the boat’s systems and equipment. It’s a snapshot in time and not a guarantee that that equipment will work in the future. Areas inspected should be easily accessible and nothing is usually dismantled in the process.

A C&V survey will include observations and descriptions of the findings as well as a summary statement of the overall condition of the boat. A report is usually generated within 24-48 hours and will include observations as well as photos. It should include fair market and replacement values for the boat based on comparable sales and industry data.

Your surveyor may suggest additional inspections be done by specialists like an engine surveyor who may conduct an oil sample analysis and a detailed evaluation of the condition of the motor(s). A rig surveyor may be needed for sailboats where the individual goes up the mast, checks the condition of the shrouds and stays and possibly reviews the condition of the sails.

Other types of surveys include the appraisal survey, which may be used for estate and divorce settlements or for valuation of a vessel that is donated to a charity. Damage surveys determine the cause and extent of damage to a boat in cases of accident, sinking or extreme weather such as hurricanes. They’re used to determine the nature and cost of repairs for damaged vessels or ones that have been salvaged (typically ones that had sunk and been raised).

How Do I Hire A Boat Surveyor?

Surveyors are specialists who have been certified to enter the profession and are required to participate in continuing education programs to maintain membership. The surveyor works for the hiring party, which is usually the buyer although there are exceptions to this. If you don’t know one personally, you can research available options in your area via the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS) and National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) organizations. (The U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t approve nor certify surveyors.) You can also ask for referrals from other boaters or boat brokers or search online marine directories under “surveyors”.

It’s best to choose a surveyor who has significant experience in the type of boat you plan to purchase – sailboat, motoryacht, tow boat, pontoon boat, metal boat, classic or anqitue boat, etc. A surveyor should be willing to initially speak with you over the phone, answer basic questions about the survey process, provide references and supply a sample of a past survey so you can gage the thoroughness of the work that will be performed. Don’t expect a surveyor to answer specific questions about a boat he or she hasn’t seen and don’t expect advice on repairs on your current vessel.

A good professional surveyor will point out things that need fixing or upgrading, and will provide a full written report. The more complex the boat, the more important it is to hire a surveyor.
A good professional surveyor will point out things that need fixing or upgrading, and will provide a full written report. The more complex the boat, the more important it is to hire a surveyor. Doug Logan photo.

During the recruitment process, speak to two or three surveyors to find the proper fit of both experience and personality. This individual will be working for you so a mesh of temperaments cannot be understated. You may need more than one type of surveyor based on the type of boat and the type of survey.

What Will A Boat Surveyor Inspect?

The surveyor will find and note the HIN (hull identification number) and state or federal registration marks. Routine inspections include (but aren’t limited to) such things as moisture readings in the hull and deck and checks for delamination or blistering. The stringers, bulkheads and transom will be inspected for structural integrity. Electrical systems and wiring as well as any thru hulls will be reviewed and tested as will be the plumbing. The surveyor will generally also include the condition of underwater gear including shafts, struts and propellers, key fasteners such as structural bolts, and the floorboards. A fuel system inspection should be done from the tanks to the engines and electronics should be turned on an tested for proper function.

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.

The surveyor will usually inspect and make an inventory of required safety gear that varies with the size and type of boat. If the boat comes with a trailer, that should be thoroughly reviewed as well to make sure it’s the proper size for the weight of the boat and that it’s in good road condition including having working lights and tires that don’t show excessive wear.

How Do I Work With A Boat Surveyor?

Your surveyor should be present for the whole survey and sea trial as should you. Ask questions about the systems and the findings but do give him/her time to do the job without interruptions. While under way, the surveyor will be inspecting systems, taking measurements and photos as well as recording notes. The time to dig into the findings will be later when they’re assembled into a report.

Don’t expect (or ask) the surveyor to enter into the negotiations. He or she is not there to tell you to buy/not buy the boat. Also, remember that the pre-purchase survey will go to your insurance provider and your lender so making it excessively negative in hopes of putting downward pressure on the price won’t serve you well in the long run.

What Should I Expect During The Boat Survey?

A survey may be a long day for the buyer. The surveyor will want to inspect the equipment and engines when they’re cold at the dock so the sea trial will have to occur after that. If the boat is kept in the water, the test drive should be before the haul out at the boatyard to save on that bill if something goes wrong during the sea trial and the buyer decides not to continue with the purchase. The boatyard may do what’s called a “short haul” where they leave the boat in the slings over the lunch hour thereby eliminating the need to block the boat up into a space. The out-of-water survey will need to be quick and precisely scheduled to get done in that short period of time.

The surveyor will guide you but if there are specific items you want to see working, make a list. This may include using the navigation and communications electronics, anchoring, hearing the stereo and checking the batteries.

How Long Does A Marine Survey Take?

A survey can take a few hours to a full day depending on the size and complexity of the boat and its systems. If you’ll be running the boat, the sea trial usually lasts 30-60 minutes.

How Should I Interpret The Results Of A Survey?

Educate yourself about what is and isn’t a big issue. If the boat is a popular model of which a number were built, you should be able to find information on performance statistics and possible problems online. You’ll learn how others have dealt with the same issues. If the boat is older or fairly unique, performance information may be harder to find. There may be an online history of issues via owners associations and clubs so you can learn what a model has experienced over the years whether with performance or problems with components like engine mounts, fuel tank corrosion, steering irregularities and so forth.

Just as with a home inspection, a boat survey and sea trial will generate a list of items that may need to be addressed. Don’t panic – this is normal and doesn’t mean it’s a bad boat. Large issues should be addressed by the seller and those include significant engine malfunction or hull de-lamination. Smaller issues will need to be taken on by the buyer.

No used boat is perfect. For that matter, no new boat is perfect so expect that the sea trial will uncover something. Address everything that comes up with as much reason and as little emotion as possible. Get an estimate of what repair or replacement will cost. Understand that if the offer comes in low, the seller won’t be motivated to make many repairs or changes.

How Much Does A Boat Survey Cost?

Some surveyors may have a flat rate for their time, especially for smaller and simpler boats. Others may charge per foot of boat length, which ranges $18-25/ft. Some surveyors will charge a portion of their per-foot time for travel to and from the vessel.

The location and age of the boat may also affect survey pricing. Older boats take more time and may have more challenging access to systems requiring the surveyor to get creative. Some surveyors won’t take on really old boats.

Additional charges to expect will be for the short haul at a boat yard, which can run another $15 per foot. Engine and sailboat rig surveys generally cost $500-$1000 but are dependent on the number of engines and the age of the rig.

Come prepared to make payments for all services rendered on the day of the survey including the surveyor and the short haul. Surveyors and some boatyards may require a check rather than a credit card. Most boats can be sea trialed and surveyed in one day and some boats may be surveyed on the trailer although they should be put in the water to be tested.

Do I Need A Boat Survey For Insurance Or Financing?

Although not always required, some insurance companies request a current survey to help identify issues that may lead to a future claim. The underwriters will review the report and the recommendations that must be cleared prior to obtaining coverage. Some insurers also request a periodic survey (every three or five years) to keep tabs on the current condition of the boat and whether something (like frayed wires, fuel leaks, bilge pump malfunction) could signal the possibility of a future claim.

A lender may request a survey if the boat is financed. The valuation assessment in the survey will help determine how much the loan can be for and how much has to be supplied as down payment.

Why Would A Seller Ask For A Survey?

A prepared seller may commission a survey to help the boat sell faster and potentially for a higher price. The seller’s survey is owned by the seller but can be shared with a buyer to attract and increase his or her interest. The buyer should have an independent survey done by a third party regardless of there being one already done by the seller’s surveyor.

How Should A Seller Prepare The Boat For A Survey?

For optimal results, a seller should take time to prepare the boat for a survey so it shows to its best advantage. The boat should be thoroughly cleaned of any clutter or extraneous equipment and gear. Whatever equipment is not part of the sale should be removed or should be labeled as available for at an extra cost.

Pressure washing the bottom (or having a diver clean it if it’s kept in the water) is helpful. Cleaning the propeller of growth will help it vibrate less and perform better. Bilges, engines and machinery spaces should be scrubbed. All periodic maintenance including oil and impeller changes should be done prior to the survey.

Cosmetics make the first impression so wash the boat and have the gel coat waxed, the stainless steel work polished and the wood varnished. Paint should be touched up and all equipment should be tested for proper functionality. If something doesn’t work, (electronics, generator, air conditioning, etc.) either have it fixed or note it for the buyer so it doesn’t come as a surprise.

Conclusion

When you purchase any expensive asset, you want to make sure it’s in “as advertised” condition. You would take a used car to a mechanic and you’d hire a reputable and certified home inspector to purchase a house. The process is the same for boats except that you use an accredited surveyor and focus on different issues.

Surveyors earn their keep in many ways including identifying past maintenance issues and future repair needs. Helping you assess the condition of the asset you’re about to purchase and settling on a fair value for it are just two reasons to take the surveying process seriously.

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