Boat surveys: an essential guide
It might not be the first thing on your mind, but a boat survey might actually prove to be the best money you ever spend.
December 9, 2021
When you’re in the process of buying a boat and trying your best to keep costs under control, the idea of throwing a big chunk of cash at a surveyor can be quite onerous, so why should you bother?
A good survey is essential in both providing peace of mind and protection when buying a boat – whether new or secondhand – and in ensuring no important elements are missed in the vessel’s long-term maintenance.
Boat surveys: key points
- Spending money on a proper survey buys you long-term peace of mind.
- The pre-purchase survey can also be used for insurance purposes or to generate a useful work list.
- No matter what sort of survey you require, always go to an organisation that regulates its members (see the contact details at the end).
- Always ask questions about a given surveyor and look for a specialist with extensive experience in the kind of vessel you are considering.
- Ask for their prices (and any terms and conditions) for carrying out a survey and make sure a surveyor has Professional Indemnity Insurance.
- When you get your survey report, make sure that you understand it. If you don’t, then get in touch with the surveyor and find out what you need to know. After all, you are paying him (often quite handsomely) for his services.
- The report is for you alone and not the seller. You’ve paid for it and its contents can often be your ammunition to negotiate a better deal, or to walk away from a boat that turns out to have significant problems.
- Always check the professional status of a surveyor.
- In a similar vein, always ensure that a marine surveyor is independent and ask around (in yacht clubs or online forums) for testimonies from previous clients.
- If in doubt, a leaflet entitled ‘A Guide to Selecting a Small Craft Surveyor’ is available from any of the three key websites listed at the end of this article.
While many boats are no more expensive than a newish prestigious used car, it’s important to recognise there’s a significant difference in the buying process. A used car is commonly bought from a dealer who owns the vehicle and must therefore adhere to sale of goods legislation and will often offer a warranty as well. However, all but a tiny percentage of boat sales are between two private individuals where there is minimal legal protection offered to the purchaser, even if negotiations are conducted through a broker.
A survey is also important when buying low-value boat, as a safeguard against buying a vessel that appears to be a bargain but that actually needs costly remedial work to make the structure sound (read Is a cheap boat good value? Get the best deal). In many cases the cost of this work can significantly exceed the market value of the repaired boat.
If the survey uncovers any problems, it enables you to amend the selling price, have the work done before finalising the deal or walk away entirely. And if it comes back positive, not only does that buy you peace of mind, but it should also give you an itemised list of areas where the boat can be improved - either in the short term or when time and funds become available. And finally, if you need finance to help buy the boat (or in fact boat insurance to help keep your investment safe, a condition report can be a very useful asset.
Even if a second hand vessel appears to have been well maintained and little used may have hidden structural defects that will impact on both the vessel’s value and its seaworthiness. Equally, I would not buy a new boat without getting a survey to ensure there are no obvious major problems and to help define the snagging list of items to be sorted under warranty. In any case, many apparently new boats have been used as demonstrators and may therefore have been subjected to grounding or other damage.
There are also occasions in which an insurance company, or marine mortgage provider, will require a survey to be able to quantify their risk. Finally, following an incident such as a collision that results in damage, or a heavy grounding, a surveyor will often be commissioned to assess the damage and recommend a repair schedule.
Unlike the MOT for road vehicles, there’s no statutory requirement for a privately owned and operated British registered yacht of less than 24 metres to be surveyed. However, there are a number of situations that may trigger the need for a survey, the most common of which, as already mentioned, is a change of ownership. In the case of older vessels – usually those of more than 20 years old – insurance companies tend to be reluctant to provide comprehensive cover unless the boat has been surveyed within the previous three to five years.
What kind of boat needs a survey?
Surveys are not confined to large, valuable or used boats. There is no minimum value or size because a boat purchase generally reflects more or less the same proportion of a person’s income. Equally, both new and used boats require surveys. Not only can builders make mistakes, but some new boats may have been on or by the water for months or even years, while they wait for a buyer to take the plunge.
Types of survey
There are plenty of types of survey - not least an Insurance Survey (on behalf of an insurer who wishes to assess the risks of potential cover) and a Finance Survey (on behalf of a lender who wishes to assess the condition and value of a boat). If you want to have a boat relocated, you can also commission a Pre and Post-Transport Survey to ensure that your boat arrives at its destination in perfect condition.
The most comprehensive is a Full Condition Survey, which may also be called a Pre-Purchase Survey. This will look at as many aspects of the vessel as possible, from structural integrity and safety of systems, right through to cosmetic details. This is designed to identify the good and bad points of a craft, giving the client (you) a very good idea of any problems that need correction - and to what extent they should be reflected in the purchase price.
What does a Full Condition Survey involve?
Naturally, different boats require different areas of consideration. But all surveys should involve an assessment of the critical components, including the hull, the propulsive equipment and the condition of all mechanical gear. They tend to involve a bottom up approach to judge whether a boat is basically sound - and to that end, they will encompass an inspection of the hull and transom (ideally out of the water) for cracks, osmosis and impact damage. They will also involve an inspection of the engine and drive to help reveal any issues with the mountings, shafts, oil leaks or connections. And an inspection of the critical control systems, deck hardware, fittings, communications and safety equipment should also be undertaken.
However, a basic survey is likely to be quite non-intrusive, so if you require a greater degree of detail, discuss this with both the surveyor and the seller prior to organising the date. Assuming that you can afford the extra fee and that the seller is content for the survey to become more intrusive, a survey really can be as in-depth as you require.
Don’t rely on an existing survey
There are two reasons not to trust a survey that has already been carried out. Firstly, a survey can only reflect the condition of the boat on the day it was carried out. The vessel may, for instance, have had a heavy grounding the following day that, of course, won’t be reflected in the report.
Secondly, all reputable surveyors carry professional indemnity insurance, against which a client can claim in the event of the surveyor missing a salient defect that should have been apparent to a knowledgeable and diligent practitioner. However, if you’ve not paid the surveyor, you have no contract and therefore no right to claim redress in the event of a problem becoming apparent at a later date.
Your survey will list recommendations, indicating what areas need attention or are likely to need attention. These recommendations tend to be divided into three distinct categories. If severe defects are discovered these should be attended to before the boat is next used – these can cover a wide variety of issues, from structural defects that require a major rebuilding of an area of the hull to damaged guardrails or stanchions that make them unsafe, but could be rectified with only £100 of materials and half a day of time.
Many recommendations will fit into a middle category in which the work can be carried out at a later date, along with other scheduled maintenance tasks. In most cases this would be at the end of the season, in preparation for relaunching the following year. There may also be defects of a less important nature, that are noted in the report but which it’s not essential to attend to if they are of a cosmetic nature.
A surveyor may also identify early indicators of a problem such as osmosis which should be monitored over a longer period of time, but which may not require any immediate repairs to be undertaken.
How to choose a surveyor
There are a number of aspects to choosing a surveyor. Firstly they should be qualified and experienced at surveying the size, style and construction of vessel you are looking at. You also need to know they will produce a clear report in which the recommendations are easily understood.
A reputable surveyor will be a member of a professional body, such as the Yacht Designers & Surveyors Association in the UK, or the International Institute of Marine Surveying, and will hold appropriate qualifications. These organisations maintain lists of members in different geographical areas, which can often be the best place to start looking in the absence of a personal recommendation.
It can also help to see copies of previous reports of roughly similar vessels, with the boat’s name and class redacted if appropriate. What you’re looking for here is the clarity of the report and the recommendations – ideally the reader should be left in no doubt about what the next course of action should be.
If buying a boat overseas it often makes sense to deal with a UK-based surveyor. For a start this will mean there should be no misunderstandings due to language barriers, but more importantly if anything goes wrong you will have access to mediation in the UK and can pursue a claim through the British legal system, which would be far easier than doing so in a foreign jurisdiction.
Limitations of surveys
Even with a full condition report there are likely to be aspects of the vessel that the surveyor is unable to inspect. The surveyor should therefore outline the extent or limitation of the inspection that has taken place. A surveyor will not be able to access anything that’s not easily visible – they will lift sole boards that are not screwed in place to inspect the bilge area, for instance, but won’t unscrew head lining panels. However, if the owner – or an owner’s representative – is available he may be able to do this to give the surveyor access to otherwise inaccessible areas.
You can expect an inspection of the rig of sailing yachts to take place at deck level, but the surveyor won’t climb the mast to perform a detailed check aloft. Similarly, you can also expect a brief external inspection of the engine and other machinery.
Very often, a surveyor will recommend that an expert in the relevant area examines specific elements of a vessel, such as machinery, or the rig of a sailing yacht, in detail. A rigger can be engaged to provide a detailed report of the rig and deck gear, while an engineer’s report on the engine, including an oil sample analysis, will give a good indication of the unit’s condition and level of historic maintenance. This is particularly valuable for motor yachts in which the cost of engine replacement or overhaul can be significant compared to the over value of the boat.
Non destructive testing methods such as ultra-sound have long been used to determine the remaining thickness of steel hulls and is now increasingly being used to enable surveyors to gain an insight into the structure of composite materials such as fibreglass and more exotic forms of construction. In particular, ultrasound can detect voids within a moulding and areas that are not properly wetted out with resin, whereas in the past this could only be tested by taking random core samples – ie by drilling holes in the boat.
While this is not normally part of a regular survey, the contract for buying a used yacht frequently allows for sea trials to take place. It’s important to note that this is not an opportunity to check out whether a particular vessel is to your liking – it’s not the equivalent of test driving a new car. Instead the sea trial is an opportunity to confirm that all the vessel’s gear and equipment is functioning correctly.
Who pays for what?
The buyer of a used yacht will be expected to pay for everything associated with the survey. This includes lifting ashore for a survey and relaunching if necessary, or in the case of a boat that’s already ashore, launching for a sea trial.
In the UK standard contracts for buying a used boat give a 14-day period in which a survey can take place, once a deposit has been paid to the vendor or his agent. Surveyors are therefore accustomed to booking work at relatively short notice. Most are happy to have a conversation on site, or by phone, on the day of the survey, with the written report often finished within around three days, and should be available at that stage to further discuss the findings.
However, don’t forget that both surveyors and boat yards are subject to the vagaries of the weather. Moisture meter readings taken on a day of torrential rain would make no sense, for instance, while a period of gales may delay a yard lifting a boat ashore in readiness for a survey.
So what are the guarantees with a boat survey?
Buying a flawed boat can result in any number of awful outcomes, from loss of the boat or third party injury, to the damage of property or even the loss of life. But a Pre-Purchase Survey is not a chance for you to wash your hands of responsibility and get an expert to make your buying decision. It is simply a report on the state of a boat at a given time (and with whatever degree of physical access is permitted by the seller). And if it then transpires that things are not as they appeared in the report, it is comforting to know that a good registered surveyor will always have professional indemnity insurance in place as a safety net.
A good surveyor can advise you on what requires attention, so you are better able to pick the right boat at the right price and do so from a position of relative security and knowledge. Just make sure you pick a well-regarded professional surveyor with relevant experience. The Marine Surveying Organisations listed below are there to help with that, so don’t hesitate to give them a call. All their members hold Private Indemnity insurance and they will be happy to tell you the status of a surveyor you are considering.
Top UK boat surveying contacts
(1) The International Institute of Marine Surveying.
(2) The Society of Consulting Marine Engineers and Ship Surveyors.
(3) The Yacht Designers & Surveyors Association.