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The Importance of a Pre-Purchase Survey

This article was previously published on SailNet .

After several experiences with professionals, the authors cut their teeth as surveyors on the boat they now own.
"Seven foot, six inches! What do you mean the draft is seven foot, six inches?" I cried.

The surveyor looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "Tape measures don't lie."

The draft of the boat Larry and I were in the process of buying was stated to be six feet, six inches, and we had even confirmed this on the drawings of this custom-made boat. We made our offer subject to sea trial and pre-purchase survey, and hired a surveyor who was highly recommended to us. We knew he might find some problems in an older boat, but this very deep draft was certainly not one that we expected.

We ended up rejecting that boat after survey, as our personal maximum draft limit was six feet, six inches. Where would we have been without a pre-purchase survey? Certainly not up a creek without a paddle, because we would have gotten stuck in the mud long before we even made it to the creek.

A pre-purchase survey, performed by a good professional surveyor, provides the prospective buyer with solid information about the condition of the vessel and its systems. With this knowledge, you the buyer, can then make an informed decision on whether this is the boat for you. Sometimes a pre-purchase survey even results in a price renegotiation with the seller when systems are found not to be functioning correctly. When we sold Safari and searched for her replacement Serengeti, we found ourselves on both sides of these surveys and learned a lot in the process.

Following a check list is good methodology for a surveyor, and good evidence for the client as well.
Not only is it prudent for a buyer to have a survey performed on any vessel, it is also required by most insurance companies and lenders, particularly with older boats. One thing to note is that there is no accreditation needed to become a marine surveyor. This means that virtually anyone with a little bit of boat knowledge, and the initiative to print up some business cards that say "marine surveyor" can start writing reports. To ensure that your surveyor is truly knowledgeable, ask around and make sure you get a good reference before hiring one out of the yellow pages. Also, make sure your surveyor is familiar with sailboats, and all that is entailed in masts and rigging. We had one surveyor tell us that he wouldn't bother examining our 21-year-old chainplates for fatigue. "They're designed to snap at a certain point under load, and you have several, so why worry if you lose one," he said. Luckily, we recognized this as poor advice, but what about the next customer?

Once you've found the boat of your dreams, what can you expect from a survey? Well, a good surveyor will have a very complete checklist to cover every aspect of the boat. They may begin by finding out the history of the boat from the present owner. Details are obtained, such as how many previous owners there have been, where the boat has spent most of its life, what sort of bottom paint is currently on it, and any construction details the owner may know. They'll also check the documentation papers and make sure everything is consistent with the numbers on the boat.

After this, the crawling around on hands and knees starts. In the case of a fiberglass hull and deck, the surveyor will determine the integrity of the deck by tapping it with a phenolic (plastic-headed) hammer to ensure proper adhesion of the fiberglass to any core materials. He'll also inspect the condition of stanchions and lifelines. A trip up the mast will allow him to make a personal inspection of the rigging, and check on the lights and instruments at the top of the mast.

A thorough survey includes scrutiny of all structural and support systems down below.
Down below, a good surveyor will scrutinize all the water and electrical systems. He'll also ensure that the refrigeration and the propane or other cooking-fuel systems function properly in the galley. Also, if it's visible, he'll inspect the hull-to-deck joint, and he'll examine the maststep for signs of corrosion or fatigue or compression. He'll also make note of any evidence of leaks and any possible damage they might have created.

For a complete survey, a boat needs to be hauled. That way everyone has a chance to check out the underbody. This is when the owner, if present, will usually be holding his breath hoping that there's no evidence of blisters or other problems. The surveyor again gets out the phenolic hammer and taps to confirm that there is no delamination or voids present in the hull and rudder. He or she may employ a moisture meter at this time to assess the moisture content of the hull laminates. The surveyor will also examine the thru-hulls for corrosion or hairline cracks. The propeller, shaft, and cutlass bearing are then closely checked to confirm no excess wear or shaft-alignment problems. And for anyone worried about getting stuck in the mud, the distance from the waterline to the bottom of the keel should be measured to confirm the draft of the boat!

In order to take note of proper functioning of all the running rigging, instruments, and condition of sails, the surveyor is customarily on board for the sea trial. Depending upon their expertise, surveyors check the engine to varying degrees. It is here that the engine is put to the test, usually opening it up to full revs. The surveyor should check for oil or water leaks, vibration, and ensure that the operating temperature remains within an acceptable range. Seasoned surveyors will also check the speed of the boat at various rpms. For the most comprehensive evaluation of the engine, you'll need to hire a mechanic to perform a diesel survey.

A complete survey will take a full, long day, and by the end of that time you should have a pretty good idea as to the overall condition of the boat and be able to make a well-informed buying decision. The surveyor will usually take a day or so to complete his official written report, but we found that most of the the important information could be found out verbally.

Conducting a complete survey means hauling the boat.
By the time we were ready to buy Serengeti, and had been through two full surveys while selling off Safari and making an offer on that deep-draft boat, Larry and I had gleaned as much information out of each of the surveyors as we possibly could. Armed with this new knowledge, and what we already knew about boat systems and construction, we decided to do the survey on Serengeti ourselves. We made a low-purchase offer, but made it clear that we would not beat up the seller on findings from a survey, which probably made it more attractive to him. We both knew that we'd find things that didn't work, that was a given.

In Serengeti's case, we already knew that she needed virtually every system replaced. She was 21 years old at the time, so we figured why pay someone else to tell us a particular system wasn't functioning right. We were convinced after our examination of the boat that she was very sound structurally, and nothing a surveyor could have told us about her systems and rigging would have been a surprise to us. This is certainly not something we recommend for every would-be boat buyer. We knew it was a risk because we were uninsured at the time, but the more we work on her and make things exactly as we want them, the more confident we are that we have a great boat and are happy with our decision.

By the way, Serengeti's draft was reported to be six feet, four inches in the listing. When we stretched the tape, she measured six feet, six inches, so she just sneaked in there under our maximum allowable draft. If we hadn't bought this boat and had to go through one more survey, I think we would have printed up some of those business cards and tried to make a living out of surveying ourselves.

Pre-Purchase Survey Tips

  • When choosing a surveyor, don't blindly accept one that's recommended by the selling broker. Conflicts of interest do exist, so do some homework to make sure that you are well represented. Remember, you're the one paying his tab, so the surveyor should be working for you, the buyer.

  • Pre-purchase surveys run around $10.00 to $12.00 per foot, plus a haul-out charge of $4.00 to $7.00 per foot depending upon where this work is done. Both costs are the responsibility of the buyer.

  • Plan to be there during the survey, and stick as close to the surveyor as possible to learn as much about your future boat as you can.

  • Don't be nervous during the survey. You, the buyer, are in the driver's seat. If a boat doesn't survey well, it's your right to walk away from the deal. Often the findings of a survey will lead to a renegotiation of the selling price.

  • Be realistic in your expectations from a survey. If the boat is more than 10 years old, there are likely going to be problems of one sort or another. Most boats have very complex systems that operate in what is essentially a hostile environment, and unless they're meticulously maintained, they do fail. But remember, virtually nothing is irreparable given enough time or money.

  • Suggested Reading:

    To Survey or Not to Survey by Tom Wood

    How to Choose the Right Boat by Don Casey

    The Choosing a Boat Equation by Mark Matthews

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