The pre-purchase survey is one of the most crucial parts of the purchase process. Beyond checking boxes for a contract, it’s a chance to learn about your sailboat, and figure out what you need to do to make it better. And you can make sure you’re getting maximum value for your sailboat purchase.
Finding a Sailboat Surveyor
The Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors has a searchable database of qualified, accredited marine surveyors. Many states don’t regulate who may call themselves a surveyor, so take the steps to make sure that the person you hire has professional credentials.
Ask other sailboat owners for recommendations, though you still check credentials. Get quotes for pricing and check availability as the best surveyors are usually very busy.
If the listing broker recommends a surveyor, it’s best to thank them politely and find your own. While brokers and surveyors should be ethical, it’s better to avoid any confusion about who the surveyor is working for. The surveyor works for you and no one else, and the choice is entirely yours.
Survey pricing is variable with region and boat size and complexity. Expect at least $20/foot, possibly up to $40/foot. For large, complex boats that take multiple days or a survey which requires travel, then may quote you a per diem rate and expenses.
What exactly is a survey?
A survey is a detailed of a sailboat, and may be done for several reasons. An insurance company will require a survey, but an insurance survey is rarely as detailed and expensive as a pre-purchase survey, though a pre-purchase survey will satisfy the insurance company.
The word “survey” also refers to the final written report.
You should have a condition in your purchase and sale agreement that reads “subject to a suitable survey and sea trial.” The sea trial is usually part of a survey and done at the same time.
The surveyor will inspect the boat from bow to stern, looking into all lockers, under all floorboards, and at accessible systems. They may tap the hull and deck with a small hammer, looking for voids in the fiberglass. They’ll turn things on, flip switches, and check the listed inventory against the actual boat to make sure listed equipment is present and functioning.
During the seal trial, the surveyor will observe the steering systems and the engine running through a series of throttle positions, noting any problems or concerns.
The Written Report
Within a few days of the inspection, the surveyor will return a written report of the findings. This will include pictures, comments, notes, and details about the boat’s equipment.
The report should be a neutral, fact-based set of observations about the condition of the vessel’s condition at the time of inspection.
A sailboat survey report should include:
- Details about installed engines and generators, including model numbers, serial numbers, and engine hours.
- Listing of hardware found, and its condition and operating state.
- Observations and notes on the general condition of the boat cosmetically.
- Notes on any specific flaws, failings, or areas that merit additional inspection or concern.
- An approximate market value of a vessel.
- Recommendations for any repairs or maintenance noted.
Any violations of USCG safety regulations.
It rarely includes speculation about conditions which are not directly observed, nor will the surveyor typically include a recommendation for or against purchase. This is a “statement of condition” rather than a recommendation.
That’s not to say the surveyor may not have an opinion about whether you should buy the boat, but that won’t usually be in the written survey report. But you can definitely ask them about it.
Planning the Survey
Once you find a surveyor, speak to them to make sure what is included in the survey. Many surveyors won’t climb rigs to inspect rigging. Others may only do a cursory inspection of engines, or not want to comment on sail conditions. Find out what else you may need, and plan additional inspections with your rigger, mechanic, or sailmaker as needed.
You’re also responsible for arranging and paying for yard services like hauling, washing, blocking, and re-launching. Find out what the surveyor wants and make reservations at the hard you want to use.
Surveys are “non-destructive” unless otherwise specified, so there should be no drilling, scraping, or other destructive testing. If there is destructive testing needed, you will need permission, and the seller will expect you to return the boat to the same condition if you reject the boat.
Before the planned survey, check the weather, confirm your hauling arrangements, and make sure everything is ready to go. When it’s survey time, plan to show up and spend the day on the boat with the surveyor. Consider arrangements for lunch, drinks and snacks to keep work going forward, especially if the boat is some place out of the way.
Some boat owners prefer not to be there, but in our experience, this is a mistake. You don’t want to get underfoot and slow the surveyor down, but you will get loads of information about your boat as you watch them work. Some may give you a running commentary or point things out to you as they find them, and may show you things no picture and paragraph of text will convey. And you also may help and speed the process.
The owner may be there. If not, they will have someone representing them. This is often the listing broker who will operate the boat and handle it in maneuvers. It’s not your boat yet, so it’s up to the owner or the owner’s agent to take responsibility for the boat.
For a more complex sailboat, plan to spend a long day, or even more than a day on a very complex boat with lots of systems. If it’s a multi-day survey, find out how your surveyor takes their coffee. A happy surveyor is a talkative surveyor, and you’ll learn a lot by just chatting about the boat on a break.
Getting The Report
The goal of the survey report is to establish if the sailboat actually is as presented for sale, based on the age and disclosed condition of the boat. A used sailboat will not be perfect. There is a nearly 100% chance that a good surveyor will find one or more “problems.” Odds are, it will be many more for older boats. It is important to note that not every “finding” in a survey is going to translate to a price adjustment or repair on a used boat.
Understanding the meaning of “Findings”
It’s the interpretation of whether a “finding” is a “problem” that the trick lies. An older boat may have dings and scratches in gelcoat, rust on some mechanical system, minor corrosion, small leaks, and may items that show wear and tear.
And that may be completely normal for the age of the boat. It is a used boat, not a new one. What you may think of as a problem is really just a finding.
What becomes a genuine problem is something which does not function or interferes with the ability to use the boat safely without fixing it.
A scratch in the gelcoat is a finding, but a missing handle on a through-hull is a problem. A radio listed in the inventory should work or be fixed or replaced if it isn’t, but a forward-looking sonar listed as “inoperable” before the survey is just a finding.
Review each finding in the report. The major findings will usually be highlighted, and those which make the boat unsafe or inoperable will be called out.
For each major finding that must be fixed, you have two options. First, you can demand that the seller fix the problem. Most contracts allow the seller to either fix a problem or propose a cash adjustment in the sale price. Sometimes, you may also propose a cash adjustment – check the terms of your contract.
If the seller refuses to fix the item or adjust the price, you have two more options: you can accept the boat with the flaws, or you can walk from the deal.
Effective Post-Survey Negotiations
Most contracts require the purchaser to present, in writing, any requests to fix problems in a survey. There are effective ways to do this, and ways that are bound to fail.
Do Your Homework
Handing the seller a copy of the survey and saying “fix everything” isn’t like to get a positive response. Nor is demanding a large dollar figure off the sale price with no supporting argument to justify the figure.
So if you’re serious about buying this boat and want to deal with the flaws, you’ll need to get an estimated value for the repair for every problem you want addressed. Only use the serious findings – safety issues, things that render the boat unusable, or major equipment which does not work. This gives the buyer an out to take the dollar adjustment, or fix the problem.
Get hard numbers and actual quotes from vendors and suppliers when possible, and document it. The cost to replace new units or buy older equipment from Ebay or marine salvage and consignment shops are both allowed, as are a reasonable cost for labor to replace the equipment.
Be reasonable – the seller isn’t going to re-fit the boat for you. One broken radar display in an integrated but obsolete set of electronics will not get you a new, state-of-the-art set of integrated equipment installed. Even if you can’t get a compatible radar display anymore. You may get a credit for the cost of a used radar display, but not all the other equipment.
You don’t want to wait for the seller to repair the boat before you close, and you can be almost certain the seller does not want to be bothered to do the repairs either, unless they can do it themselves on the cheap. So you can escrow the repairs.
Based on the estimates you assembled, block out money from the sale to make the repairs. The broker will hold this, though you can use a lawyer. List repair items with a reasonable time period to get the repairs done, with costs for each. From 90 to 180 days is typical, depending on the repairs.
As you do the repairs, give the bills to the broker and they release the funds to reimburse you. Once you’ve done the work or the deadline passes, the remaining funds are released to the seller. It’s more work, but you can often get more funds conceded with an escrow than you can with a simple credit off the selling price.
Is It Time To Walk?
If you’ve taken a boat to survey, you’ve put some money into it, and have a personal stake in buying it. But what if the survey is not as good as expected? How do you know if it’s time to walk from the deal?
First, if you are uncomfortable with any finding or that it can be fixed, reject the boat. If you have a list of issues you want addressed and the seller will not budge on any of them, that also may be a sign that you may not want this boat unless you’re willing to pay for the repairs.
Finally, if the market value in the report is significantly below the purchase price, you may have a problem. If you’re financing, your bank may not go forward. You may have a deeply flawed boat which is reflected in the estimated value, and that’s a good bullet to dodge
Use the Survey
Most surveys have a list of findings, and this list of findings is your first work list on your new sailboat. You know most of what is wrong with your new boat before you ever sail it.
Most surveyors are happy to take questions about their surveys and discuss their findings even after a survey, so are a valuable resource for you with your new boat.