Most people wouldn’t buy a house without having it inspected first. You don’t know what defects might be lurking behind the walls, in the attic or under the floorboards, and inspectors are experts at finding unknown issues.
The same applies to a boat. When you’re ready to make a major investment in your dreamboat, it’s good to know about any hidden blemishes beneath her outward beauty. Inspectors for boats are known as marine surveyors, and they can easily earn their fee by alerting you to all of your target vessel’s condition concerns.
Choosing Your Surveyor
While anybody might hang up a shingle and claim to be a marine surveyor, you want to make sure you have an expert who knows his her way around the boat from the masthead to the keel and bow pulpit to the rudder.
If you’re working with a financing company, the loan officer will usually want to see an appraisal survey to make sure the boat (which is usually the loan collateral) is worth what you/they are paying for it.
If you’re insuring the vessel (see Marine Insurance: What’s Covered and What’s Not), the insurance company will want to know that your boat will remain safely afloat, as well as the fair market value for which to insure it.
With this in mind, your loan agent or insurance agent is a great place to start when selecting a professional marine surveyor. Either or both should have lists of approved surveyors in your area. If you hire someone who isn’t on their lists, they may not accept the results of the survey.
If you aren’t getting a loan or buying insurance, you’ll still want to get a survey for your own enlightenment – unless you’re a marine expert yourself and feel confident in your ability to discover all of the boat’s flaws. Any hidden issues may provide grounds for further negotiations before closing the deal. If your surveyor finds a fuel tank dripping into the bilge, for example, you might ask the seller to have the leak repaired or reduce the price enough to cover the repairs.
The survey also provides an excellent starting point for your project list (every boater has one of them) after you close the deal.
Without a recommendation from an insurer or financer, your next best bet is to ask your boat broker or fellow boaters for a recommendation.
If you have no recommendations, you can check the listings on professional accrediting organizations’ websites. The National Association of Marine Surveyors Inc. has a member database that can be searched by state and type. (The latter criterium is helpful since you might not want to hire an expert in surveying cargo ships to inspect a yacht.) NAMS was established in 1962 to certify surveyors and provide continuing education opportunities.
The Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors Inc. has a list of its members that can be searched by city, state or zip code. SAMS was founded in the 1980s to provide information and training to those interested in the profession and suggest standards for technical procedures to members.
As you narrow down your choice of surveyors, talk to them and ask about cost, how long the inspection will take and which standards they use. Most common are U.S. Coast Guard, American Boat and Yacht Council and National Fire Protection Association – all of which have written codes for everything from proper emergency gear and buoyancy to correct wiring and other safety requirements.
Let the surveyor know the type of survey you want (insurance value, appraisal, pre-purchase or some combination of the above).
What to Expect
Once you’ve hired your surveyor, you’ll want to schedule a time through your broker or the boat owner for the surveyor to visit the boat. For a complete survey, that visit will include a sea trial, a trip to the yard for a quick haul out if the boat is kept in the water, and plenty of time to poke around every locker, compartment, nook and cranny of the vessel. For sail craft, the best surveyors will climb the mast to inspect all of the standing rigging. In some cases, a surveyor might recommend services at an additional charge for such things as moisture metering, ultrasonic testing or corrosion tests.
If at all possible, you should be present during the survey. While most surveyors take plenty of digital photos these days, a snapshot doesn’t compare to a surveyor pointing out the blisters he finds during the haul out and explaining whether or not they should be a matter of concern. It is also an excellent opportunity to learn a lot about the boat you’re hoping to buy, and it may be your first opportunity to be onboard while it is underway.
After the survey, the surveyor should compile a thorough written and illustrated report of his or her findings. The report provides the surveyor’s professional opinion of the boat’s condition and/or value, but it is not a guarantee. There is always a chance that even the best surveyors can miss something in an inaccessible area of the boat, but the odds are your vessel will be much safer once you’ve addressed any and all of the issues your survey finds.