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Master Of All They Survey

Sign your name to a 30-year mortgage on a house without a home inspection? Not on your life! Buy a used car without a mechanic’s once-over? No way! Thinking about buying a used boat without a survey? Big, big mistake!

When it comes to buying a used boat, random hull-thumping is about as revealing as kicking the tires of a used car. A good survey will tell you if a boat’s beauty is more than just skin deep.

Although surveys don’t come cheap — expect to pay in the range of $300 to $600 to have the typical 25- to 35-footer examined — this is a reasonable price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing in advance what shape your dreamboat is in.

“Too many boat buyers look at the surveyor’s fees as just another cost associated with buying a boat,” says Jack Hornor, a naval architect and surveyor in Davidsonville, MD (see Hornor’s boat reviews, http://www.boatus.com/jackhornor). “In fact, a good survey will usually save a buyer many times the surveyor’s fees in cost of repairs or adjustments to the purchase price for noted deficiencies.”

During a pre-purchase inspection, the marine surveyor will evaluate the boat’s systems and its structure, looking for problems that require expensive repairs or that make the boat unseaworthy. The surveyor’s written report will help you decide whether to go ahead with the deal or look for a boat in better condition.

So, who is this marine surveyor, this person upon whom you are placing your trust? What makes him or her qualified to evaluate a recreational vessel?

Simply put, a marine surveyor is a technical consultant competent to inspect and evaluate recreational boats. The key word is “competent,” since surveyors aren’t licensed or regulated by any government agency. Anyone can call himself a surveyor — and many do. Here are some tips on hiring a good one.

First, a good indicator of competence is “certified marine surveyor” status with the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) or “accredited marine surveyor” status with the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS), two professional groups for surveyors.

The BoatUS surveyor referral list (http://www.boatus.com/insurance/survey.htm) is another good way to locate qualified surveyors. To be listed, surveyors must have proven knowledge of marine manufacturing and safety standards, an apprenticeship with an established surveyor, affiliation with professional groups like the American Boat & Yacht Council, NAMS and SAMS, as well as complete autonomy from other marine businesses.

Second, the surveyor should have absolutely no affiliations with boat brokers, dealers, boat repair shops or others whose living depends on the sale or repair of boats, especially the one you are about to buy. To rely on a surveyor recommended by the seller is to run the risk of having defects glossed over during the inspection. For this same reason, do not rely upon a survey report, even a recent one, paid for by the seller.

Third, ask the surveyor by what criteria he will evaluate your boat. Look for detailed references to the boat manufacturing and safety requirements developed by the U.S. Coast Guard, the American Boat & Yacht Council, the National Fire Prevention Association and other standards-writing groups.

“There is no shortage of regulations designed to enhance safety at sea,” says surveyor Larry Montgomery, who works in Seattle and Port Townsend, WA. “Most of the regulations reinforce what surveyors have been saying for years.” A good surveyor will cite these regs, chapter and verse, and explain them in detail in his written report of the boat’s condition.

While enthusiasm for boating sometimes inspires people to dip their oars into surveying, of much more relevance is the surveyor’s track record in boat design, construction and repair. “Select a professional practitioner, not someone who surveys boats as a hobby,” recommends Montgomery, who worked for 30 years in the marine industry before turning to marine survey full-time in 1986.

“Remember, you are protecting not only your investment but also the souls on board,” he adds.

Marine surveyor Henry Mustin of Delray Beach, FL, agrees. “We survey boats to determine their condition, especially based on the buyer’s intended use,” says Mustin, the author of Surveying Fiberglass Sailboats: A Step-By-Step Guide for Buyers and Owners.

Once you’ve found a surveyor, discuss exactly what will be covered in the inspection. Do not balk when the surveyor recommends an inspection out of the water, even if it means the additional expense of a haul-out.

Without a haul-out, the surveyor “can’t determine below-waterline deficiencies,” Montgomery comments. “I wouldn’t even dignify it by calling it a survey.”

“The prospective buyer sees the boat in the best possible light when it’s in the water,” says Mustin. “But you can’t see anything below the waterline that way. You don’t know whether it’s been grounded or if there’s keel damage.”

Some surveyors do in-depth engine exams, but most do not. Ask the surveyor to refer you to a marine mechanic capable of evaluating the engine. If you are thinking about buying a sailboat, ask the surveyor if the rigging will be inspected aloft or from the deck. This is especially important with older boats, where fittings and cables may be worn or frayed.

Arrange to have the surveyor on board when the boat is sea trialed so running systems can be checked underway. A sea trial is also when you will notice performance and handling problems that can’t be detected at the dock.

Regardless of whether you’re a novice or a lifetime boater, plan on being present at the survey inspection. It’s a great chance to learn about your boat from an expert. Depending upon the boat’s size and complexity, the inspection could take a full day to complete.

With the boat hauled, the survey begins with an inspection of the hull for signs of impact damage, voids, delamination and blisters in the fiberglass. The condition of the keel is noted. Underwater hardware, like struts, propellers, shafts and through-hull fittings are examined for damages from corrosion, impact or misalignment.

On-deck hardware and fittings are checked. The deck itself is examined for soft spots or other signs of deterioration.

The lion’s share of the survey is spent below-decks, inspecting the boat’s engine, seacocks, fuel lines, electrical wiring and plumbing systems. The hull interior, where accessible, is examined for structural defects.

“To the disappointment of some and the surprise of others, professional surveyors don’t pass or fail boats on completion of their inspection,” says Hornor. “Professional surveyors provide clients with sufficient information to enable them to make a decision as to whether they wish to buy.”

Even so, as valuable as a survey is, it is important to remember that the report is a snapshot, in essence, a description of the boat’s condition on the day of the inspection. The surveyor may not be able to detect problems hidden by the boat’s permanent structures, like bulkheads or liners. For example, a common problem like transom core rot may be impossible to detect. Surveys normally do not include destructive tests, like core samples.

Once the on-site inspection is completed, the surveyor will prepare a written report of his findings, including a complete description of the boat’s physical condition, the equipment on board and a fair market value. The report will also include a boiler plate disclaimer freeing the surveyor from any liability for unforeseen problems.

The surveyor’s recommendations for needed repairs and their estimated cost conclude the report. This final section may more than pay for the entire cost of the survey as it could provide a basis for re-negotiating the sale price or bargaining with the seller to make repairs at his expense.

If the to-do list is extensive, however, you may decide to cancel the deal. This shouldn’t be a problem, if you’ve taken a few precautionary steps in writing the sales agreement.

It is advisable to make any boat purchase agreement contingent on a satisfactory survey and sea trial. Without these precautions, the seller has the right to keep all or a portion of your deposit money. This deposit should be held in an escrow account held by the broker until after the survey is completed. If no broker is involved, have the seller agree in writing to hold your deposit, pending the survey.

Finally, all survey expenses, including haul-out fees, are the responsibility of the buyer. Be sure to obtain permission from the seller or broker before having a boat inspected or sea-trialed. It goes without saying that you will need the owner’s okay to perform any destructive tests.

For more tips, call 703-461-2856, e-mail ConsumerProtection@BoatUS.com, or go here (http://www.boatus.com/guidenew) for the BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau’s free “Guide to Buying and Selling a Boat.” The 30-page booklet is designed to help buyers navigate the channels to boat ownership.

(c) Copyright BoatUS Magazine, May 2002

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