Why you need a survey

A sailboat out of the water undergoing a survey

Most people who are in the market to buy a boat have heard they should get a survey. However, not everyone knows why. Read on to find out about the survey process, how much it costs, and why you should really get one!

What is a survey? 🔗

A survey is like a home inspection for boats. You pay a professional to go over the boat with a fine-tooth comb, testing each system and looking into every dark corner. Usually the survey includes a sea trial, where you actually take the boat out on the water to test its seaworthiness and performance. Engine and sail systems can be verified first-hand, and you can get a sense for how the boat handles. The surveyor delivers a written report detailing the condition of the boat and any recommended maintenance.

Why would you want a survey? 🔗

The most obvious reason is to identify any surprises about the boat: does it have structural problems? Is there evidence that it sank at some point? Is the electrical system ABYC-compliant? You don’t want to realize after buying the boat that you need to put a ton of work into it, especially if it is uneconomical to fix. The survey report also provides impartial observations to support you if you need to renegotiate the sale, so the seller knows that there’s a real concern and that you’re not just trying to haggle.

Another obvious answer might be “because I have to” – many insurance companies and banks will require a recent survey to prove that the boat is sound and worth the value of the coverage or loan.

But obvious answers aren’t very interesting, so I posed this question to Gene Barnes, a surveyor with over 30 years of experience. His answer: “It’s good to have an outside opinion.” A second set of eyes, particularly more experienced eyes, can see things you’ve missed and give you an assessment that isn’t as emotionally invested as you probably are. Unless you are a marine professional, you may not have the experience and skill to perform a sound survey.

How much does a survey cost? 🔗

Survey costs can vary based on location and surveyor. Like most things, surveys tend to be more expensive in the Northeast and in California. Some surveyors charge by the day, and others by the length of the vessel. In the Northeast, which Gene and I are most familiar with, expect to pay $1000-1800 per day or around $25/ft. SailsGoal can help you estimate the cost of a survey if you fill in the survey cost model.

How long will your survey take? Small boats might only take half a day. “A day is typical up to about 40’,” Gene says, “and beyond that a lot of it depends on the systems and logistics.” By the time you get to 60’, you definitely want to budget at least two days, and for boats over about 80’, you’ll need to find a specialist surveyor (with considerably higher cost).

It sounds like a big chunk of change, but a survey has the potential to save you a lot more than it costs.

Choosing a surveyor 🔗

Many people will tell you not to use a surveyor recommended by your broker, but Gene says this isn’t the conflict of interest it at first appears: “A good broker doesn’t want a bad survey any more than anybody else does. It just makes their life complicated. A good broker wants all of the information on the table so the deal can go forward.” Most brokers and surveyors who have been in business for a while will have worked together at some point. As Gene put it, “It’s a small world.” So avoiding a surveyor with a relationship with your broker might not even be possible.

You definitely want a thorough surveyor. “You certainly don’t want somebody doing [a 40’ boat] in two hours,” Gene says. Most surveyors are accredited by one (or both) of two bodies: NAMS and SAMS. “Today the standards for both societies are about the same,” explains Gene, so it doesn’t really matter who accredited your surveyor, as long as they are accredited.

Gene recommends interviewing a few potential surveyors on the phone. “Make sure that when you hire someone, it is someone who is familiar with [the type and size of boat] you’re looking at.” You should express any concerns you might have about the boat. “Be sure that the individual understands what is important to you [and] also understands what you’re looking for.” If you still have multiple options after narrowing them down by those criteria, it comes down to feeling: “If get along on the phone and have a good, positive interpersonal connection, that’s probably who you want.”

The process 🔗

The standard purchase and sale contract (used by almost all boat brokers) calls for the survey to occur after the buyer’s offer is accepted and before the final sale. Don’t worry – even though your offer was accepted, that offer was based on the boat’s condition as advertised from the listing and the showing. If the survey turns up any new information, it’s normal to renegotiate the price to account for fixing problems. If issues are quite serious, you can even back out of the sale.

Plan on having the boat out of the water during the survey. This is the only way the surveyor can inspect the hull and underwater hardware, like propellers. If the boat is made of fiberglass, you can expect the surveyor to spend quite a while testing the entire hull for moisture intrusion using a moisture meter or a rubber mallet.

Next up, your surveyor will most likely take the boat on a sea trial. This is to ensure the machinery, most importantly the engine, works in real use. If you’re doing a survey with the boat on the hard during the winter, it’s not uncommon to do a sea trial in the spring. It is very risky, as a buyer, to skip the sea trial. If you’re not careful, you could buy a boat that doesn’t actually work. Gene cautions, “if you can’t do sea trials, you need to have some sort of protection: an escrow clause or something like that.”

Surveys for Sellers 🔗

A survey is a good idea for a seller, too. Gene advises, “it’s a great idea for the seller to know what he’s selling. Every seller thinks their boat is perfect.” It’s better to discover any big issues up front than be blindsided by them when the buyer’s survey comes back. The more your listing reflects the true state of of the boat, the less negotiating room the buyer will have after getting their survey results.

Gene Barnes is an accredited marine surveyor with over 30 years of experience based out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. If you’d like to contact him regarding his services, you can reach him at +1 508-284-3969 or efbinc@comcast.com.

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