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March 21st 2018. By Alex Smith.

Boat surveys

If you’ve found a boat you’re keen to buy, a marine survey is much more than just a box-ticking exercise.

Some people find themselves in a position to buy a succession of new boats. Others like to build trusting long-term relationships, by progressively upsizing with a specific brand from a specific dealer. But the vast majority of boat buying takes place between private operators on the used market – and that makes it a wildly active and dynamic place to go shopping.

However, it’s not a place of reassuring showroom shine, perfect maintenance records and pristine documentation. On the contrary, while there are certainly lots of fresh, tidy and well-maintained boats out there, there are also plenty of tired and needy project boats around – and unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s not always easy to tell which is which. More troubling still, as the buyer in a private transaction, you don’t enjoy much in the way of legal protection, even if you go through a broker, so the more you can do to bring together all the pertinent information and make a properly informed buying decision, the safer you will be.

Survey - equipment chaek

A survey is essential when buying a boat.

What is a marine survey?

A marine survey is a central part of the boat buyer’s dossier. It’s basically a professional assessment of a boat’s condition and value – and it can take several forms, each related to the needs of the commissioning client. For instance, an Insurance Survey is conducted on behalf of an insurer who needs to evaluate the risks of potential cover; a Finance Survey is conducted on behalf of a lender who needs to assess its relevance as security against a loan; and if you want to have your boat relocated, you can also commission a Pre and Post-Transport Survey to ensure that your boat arrives at its destination in perfect condition.

However, the most comprehensive and relevant form of survey for the boat buyer is a Pre-Purchase or Full Condition survey. This is designed to identify the good and bad points of a craft, giving you (rather than the seller) an itemised list of issues that need correction, with a clear indication of their relative urgency and importance. It also gives you realistic leverage either to get any remedial works completed prior to purchase, to reduce the agreed (‘subject to survey’) price or to retract your offer and walk away. Not only does that buy you peace of mind (a very valuable commodity on the used market), but if you need finance to help buy the boat (or in fact insurance to help keep your investment safe), it can also work very much in your favour.

What kind of boat needs a survey?

There’s a common misconception that marine surveys are solely for high-value boats purchased privately on the used market, but there is no minimum value or size and neither is there a minimum age. On the contrary, both new and used boats can benefit from surveys. After all, most of the boat building industry operates on the basis of small-volume production with only moderate mechanisation, so new boats almost always come with imperfections. More to the point, some new boats sit by the water for months on end or else do hundreds of road miles as display models at shows and events, while they wait for buyers to take the bait. In short, if you’re buying a boat as anything other than a modest, low-value project, you’d be wise to get a survey.

Just be aware that, while the vendor may well have commissioned his own survey when he bought the boat, that’s of no use to you at all. It certainly doesn’t hurt to take a look at an old report, but any kind of collision, grounding or technical mishap could have happened since an old survey was done – and given that you don’t know how the boat has been used and cared for, the general decay and corrosion associated with ageing could be more significant than the elapsed time suggests. More to the point, while most reputable surveyors hold Professional Indemnity and Public Liability insurance, if the survey wasn’t commissioned and paid for by you, you have no ability to make a claim against it.

How do you pick the right surveyor?

There are two key professional bodies for marine surveyors in the UK – the Yacht Designer’s & Surveyors Association (www.ydsa.co.uk) and the International Institute of Marine Surveying (www.iims.org.uk). These organisations maintain lists of members in different regions, so in the absence of a personal recommendation, these are among the best places to begin your search. In fact, even if you’re investigating an overseas boat, a UK-based surveyor is still your best bet, partly to avoid any language barriers and partly because, if anything should go wrong after the purchase, you will be able to pursue your claim through the British legal system, rather than being forced to operate through a foreign one.

In all cases, however, you should pick an experienced surveyor who specialises in the boat type under consideration. Whether that’s sail or power, inland or offshore, planing or displacement, a cat or a monohull – and whether it’s built from steel, wood or fibreglass – you’ll only get a really valuable service by employing someone with a proven understating of what matters on a given boat type. So ask to see copies of previous surveys on similar craft and if you don’t find the reports clear, relevant and accessible, look elsewhere.

What does a Full Condition Survey involve?

Whatever the type of boat, all Full Condition Surveys should involve a ground-up assessment of the critical components, including the hull, the propulsive equipment and the condition of all mechanical gear. If the boat is out of the water with the hull and skin fittings easily accessible, any cracks, thin spots, osmosis or impact damage will be much easier to identify. A survey should also involve an inspection of the engine and drive to help reveal any issues with the mountings, shafts or connections, as well as an inspection of the control systems, deck hardware, communications and safety equipment.

While a survey doesn’t tend to include a sea trial as a matter of course, this is also a vital part of the boat buying process so it can make good sense to have the surveyor on board at the same time. It’s your opportunity to ensure that a vessel functions correctly in every practical regard – and while you, as the boat buyer, will be expected to pay for the survey and the sea trial, as well as any associated costs, including lifting, launching and recovery, it’s well worth a slice of your budget.

Given the obvious time pressures of the boat buying process, surveyors are well accustomed to operating at very short notice. Most will give you a good idea of what they think on the day of the inspection itself, before generating a written report within 72 hours. You can then give the surveyor a call to discuss any specific findings in the report – but as regards the report itself, a good one ought to be very clear and explicit…

It should contain a list of areas that need attention, with a clear indication of their relative priority. There will be a list of any serious flaws in need of immediate remedial work; a list of intermediate issues that can be sorted at a later date alongside other scheduled maintenance tasks; and a list of relatively trivial issues that you can use as a basis for potential upgrades in the future. A good surveyor will also identify any early symptoms of an issue, which causes no short-term concern but which might benefit from being monitored over time.

Surveys- engine

A well treated engine is indicative of the condition of the whole boat.

What are the guarantees and limitations?

A Full Condition Survey is not about getting an expert to make the buying decision on your behalf. It’s simply a report on the state of a boat at a given time, with whatever degree of physical access is permitted by the vendor.

Modern, non-destructive testing methods, such as ultrasound, mean that you no longer have to drill holes in a boat to assess the condition of its hull, but a surveyor will not unscrew panels to gain access to elements of the boat that are not easily visible. If the vendor is on board, he will often allow the surveyor a greater degree of freedom if he feels it aids a sale without damaging his boat, but even then, there will be aspects of a boat that the surveyor is unable to inspect, so his report should be explicit about that.

What a good surveyor should also do is identify areas that might warrant more detailed investigation by a specialist professional – but ultimately, it’s down to you to decide where you draw the line. Given the perennial relevance of Caveat Emptor (the principal that the buck stops with the buyer), do you believe you have sufficient grasp of the pertinent facts to make a sound judgement on the boat? If so, make your choice. If not, it’s time to delve a little deeper.



Alex Smith is an ex-Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.