It was an eye-opening experience because, as a long-time boat owner, I thought I knew a lot about boats. I was buying a used 25-foot fibreglass sportfisherman, and I’d already spent most of a day crawling around the bilges and poking into the corners, and I had given the boat a clean bill of health. But my insurance company had insisted on a marine survey, so I was following the surveyor as he examined the boat. A tiny crack in the gel coat at one corner of the cockpit led him, just like Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of a clue, to the main cabin bulkhead. I’d examined that same hull/bulkhead joint too, but the surveyor found another hairline crack that indicated the whole bulkhead had broken loose. In fact, all the bulkheads had “let go” from the hull to some extent, and they were so hard to spot that I’d missed them completely. In a few minutes, that surveyor had saved me more than 40 times his bill!
Even if you think you know everything about boats, you still need a marine survey. A survey assesses the structural condition of a used boat and will include electrics, plumbing, gas and other equipment, or if there is something the surveyor is concerned about, he will suggest a further inspection by a relevant expert (e.g. mast or engine). If you require a valuation you need to request it, as the surveyor won’t otherwise include it.
Although you can buy a used boat without a survey, you probably can’t arrange financing or insurance without one. So any idea of cutting costs by eliminating the survey is just going to make life difficult after you’ve bought the boat, especially if it won’t pass survey and you’ve already paid the buyer.
How to find a reputable surveyor
The first question faced by any prospective buyer is finding a reputable marine surveyor. Unfortunately, there is no licensing program for this profession, so anyone can have business cards printed up and call themselves an expert. Reputation is the key to finding a good surveyor, however, and you’ll need to do some sleuthing of your own to find one. Start with your finance company and ask them for a list of surveyors that they deal with. They’ll often have a list of “approved” surveyors from which you can pick. Call your insurance agent for his recommendations, and compare the two lists to see which surveyors are on both lists. From that point, you should call yacht brokers or boat dealers in your area and, if you know anyone who has recently purchased a used boat, ask about their experience or ask around a sailing club.
There are a number of organisations whose members are marine surveyors. Be aware that marine surveyors may be ship surveyors as well as yacht surveyors, so be sure you check this carefully. In the USA there are NAMS and SAMS, in the UK – YDSA, RINA, IMarEST, SCMS & IIMS. Each organisation attempts to regulate the level of expertise among its members, who themselves have various qualifying criteria and require recommendations from other surveyors before they are accepted for membership.
When buying a used boat, it is your responsibility to find a surveyor and, although some yacht brokers or boat dealers may offer to do this for you, you should contact the surveyor yourself, as the contract must be between you and the surveyor. All surveyors have different backgrounds, and you’ll want to find one that matches with your boat and needs. If, for example, you’re buying a stern drive cabin cruiser, you don’t want a surveyor whose background is primarily racing sailboats. You also want to ensure that the surveyor is answering to you, and not to a broker or other client. Price is also a variable – surveyors charge either by the hour or by the foot. If extensive travel is required, you can expect to pay expenses as well.
What to expect
In preparation for the survey you should arrange to have the boat lifted out of the water. No surveyor can guess at the underwater condition of a boat, and most banks and insurance companies won’t accept an in-water survey either. While some surveyors prefer to work alone, remember that you’re the client and have a right to be present. Make sure that the surveyor has no objection to your presence, but make it clear that you will not interrupt him, because he needs to concentrate.
The surveyor will arrive with a clipboard and checklist, as well as an array of unusual tools, including a spike, pocketknife, small rubber or plastic hammer, mirror and torch, and a meter of some sort. Most surveyors will start with the hull exterior, checking for cosmetic damage and previous repairs, which will require additional inspection inside. I was surprised to find, on my 25-foot sportfisher, that the surveyor immediately spotted a patch on the bow that I hadn’t seen at all; it had been expertly repaired and was not a problem.
Using the hammer, the surveyor will “sound” the hull by tapping it and listening to the tone. On both wood and fibreglass hulls, questionable sections of material will emit a distinctly different sound that can signal dry rot, de-lamination, or water absorption. Wooden hulls, in particular, will get the spike or knife applied to areas where dry rot is expected, and one surveyor told of leaning on a hull stringer while using his spike in the bilge area. The stringer collapsed like a baked potato, and it turned out that the wood had completely rotted away, leaving only spongy filler holding up the layer of paint. Needless to say, that boat didn’t pass its survey.
What you pay for
Actually, a boat doesn’t really “pass” a survey. The US surveyor will usually provide a standardised form that records the specifications and gear aboard the boat, as well as short lists of findings and recommendations. A European surveyor will not usually provide a checklist, but a written report giving details of the defects and recommendations for rectification, including time scale. To remain neutral, however, the surveyor won’t tell you to buy or not buy the boat … that remains your decision. His job is simply to provide you with an expert analysis of the boat’s condition, on which you can judge for yourself. The survey, of course, is the best tool for price negotiation since the owner can’t refute the findings.
A prospective buyer should also have a clear grasp of what the marine surveyor is not checking. In a powerboat, some surveyors will survey the external condition and appearance of the engine and stern gear, but it is not a condition report. They will note loose wires, bad hoses or belts and other external items, but a wise buyer should have an oil analysis to check the actual internal condition of the engine. On a sailing boat, the surveyor will usually count the number of sails and superficially check their condition but, again, the buyer should consider having the sails examined by a sail maker who can offer a better appraisal of their present condition and value. Most surveyors also will not go up a mast to check its condition, although they may examine it through binoculars.
Reporting and Recommendations
The surveyor’s report will list the boat’s equipment aboard at the time of survey, but the most important section for both the buyer (and his bank and insurance agent) is under “Recommendations”. In this area, the surveyor will list everything he feels is necessary to bring this boat to safe operating condition. In the case of my sportfisher, item number one on recommendations was “Rebond all bulkheads and vertical cockpit supports to hull and longitudinal stringers,” which was a simple phrase for a lot of expensive work.
The recommendations should be graded in importance and time scale and become the starting “work list” for your new boat, and your insurance company may ask you to sign a form stating that the important recommendations have been met before they will issue coverage on your new boat. The bank may insist that you promise to perform the repairs “promptly,” in return for their loan.
The sheer number of items can be extensive and can take up several pages, although the minor ones shouldn’t frighten you. On my sportfisher, the two pages of items ranged from the $5,000 bulkhead repairs down to number 27: “Have fire extinguishers serviced and tagged by reliable agent”. In between, it was suggested that sea valves be replaced, that signal flares be renewed to meet legal requirements, and that the bilge be cleaned of sludge.
The US Surveyor will assign two distinct values: market and replacement. The market value is based on the condition of the boat, the prices asked and paid for sister ships, and a review of the “blue book” guides used by boat dealers. The market value should correspond fairly closely to the price you are paying for the boat, and it should be adjusted to reflect needed repairs itemised in the survey. Replacement value is more of an ego stroke than a useful number, because it indicates the estimated cost to build the identical boat at today’s prices. For my little sportfisher, it was nearly four times the asking price of the boat; so don’t be misled by replacement value.
The European surveyor will include a valuation only if it is requested and there may well be an additional fee. This will include information on where the surveyor found the data and may well not be the same as the marketing price listed by the broker. The surveyor will identify if the valuation is before or after rectification of the defects identified in the survey report. This value will be used for insurance purposes.
There is a lovely 36-foot fibreglass trawler yacht sitting in the back of a boatyard not far from my office. The hull still has a gloss although the varnish is starting to peel, but anyone who asks about the boat is told a sad story. It seems the yacht was bought by a man who skipped the survey, only to find that the boat had major problems. The deck was plywood covered with teak, and rainwater had soaked into the plywood until it was rotten from bow to stern. Estimates for replacing the entire deck, which meant removing the cabin as well, were nearly as much as the price he had paid for the boat. In the end, he decided to recover part of his loss by selling the engine and electronics, leaving the boat as a hollow monument to his folly. I nearly made the same mistake with my sportfisher, and the moral is simple: don’t ever buy a boat without a competent marine survey.
The Yacht Designers and Surveyors Association (YDSA)
The International Institute of Marine Surveying
Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA)
Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST)
Society of Consulting Marine Engineers and Ship Surveyors (SCMS)