The Pre-Purchase Survey – Buy Your Next Boat With Your Eyes Open

If you splurge on one thing before you sign the sales agreement on your next vessel, make sure it’s on a Pre-Purchase Survey by an independent surveyor. No matter how much you think you know about boats, your surveyor has your back when it comes to searching out and providing evidence of faults which could turn your dream purchase into a nightmare…

What is a Pre-Purchase Survey?

A pre-purchase survey is a thorough inspection and testing of a vessel by a qualified and experienced surveyor carried out on behalf of a prospective new owner before he buys it.  It aims to: 

  • Identify any structural and non-structural faults, 
  • Recommend any necessary repairs, 
  • Compare the actual vessel and its inventory with the vessel sales particulars, and check that everything works as stated,
  • Provide an assessment of the overall condition compared with other identical type and age vessels,
  • Provide a purchase valuation based on the vessel condition, inventory and location.

Who Needs a Pre-Purchase Survey?

Anyone about to spend money on a boat purchase should seriously consider the potential risks in not having a pre-purchase survey carried out by an expert on their behalf.  Like a car, a boat is a vehicle that will carry you and your family, friends or co-workers in places that may be too far from shore to swim without difficulty, and you want to ensure their safety.  If there is anything which might compromise this, it’s important that you know about it before handing over your cash.  In the excitement of finding your potential dream boat, it’s easy to get carried away and to overlook things which may not only compromise the lives of those on board, but which will cost you money to rectify in the future.  And like a house, a boat can be a significant investment, particularly where you may be planning to live aboard, doesn’t it make sense that you make sure you’re investing this sum wisely?

Why Would I Need a Pre-Purchase Survey?

When a vessel leaves the factory, by law it receives an assessment of conformity to accepted standards; in the European Union this is the CE Mark, and in the USA, it is a USCG certification.  In fact, even before leaving the factory, a vessel may have been subject to poor quality control and should be given an independent verification before coming under its first ownership.  These standards exist to ensure that the appropriate design and manufacturing standards have been met so as to minimise your risk as a consumer and boat user, and certify the vessel for a given expected usage.  

Once the vessel is sold to a new owner, there is no control over nor records kept of the conditions that the vessel may encounter during its everyday usage and storage, the accidents it may have however large or small, the standards of any repair work, equipment installations or changes, or indeed anything that may affect the condition of the vessel when that owner comes to sell it on.  This is of particular importance where the location of a vessel is likely to have an impact on its overall condition; for example a vessel in the tropics is subject to intense UV light exposure which plays havoc with plastic in general… this includes any gelcoat on the hull and decks, varnish on woodwork, plastic fittings, hatches and line handling equipment, ropes, sails and canvas covers amongst many other things.  Vessels in the hurricane or typhoon belt are a particularly risky proposition for a buyer as hurricane damage may be cosmetically faired so as to be almost invisible whilst leaving potentially dangerous structural damage hidden.

Whilst the items discovered during a survey may not stop you from buying the boat, you owe it to yourself and your future passengers to be aware of anything affecting the safety or value of your vessel, and the report gives you significant bargaining power with the seller, helping you arrive at a price which is both fair and based on fact.

A buyer should not sign any documents or hand over anything more than a goodwill deposit before all the stages of a pre-purchase survey have been completed, and he should not be afraid to walk away from a vessel following a pre-purchase survey if he is uncomfortable with any of the findings… after all, that is the point of having a survey done!

What’s involved in a Pre-Purchase Survey?

A pre-purchase survey involves several stages and covers, by necessity, a huge list of items to be checked. Normally the surveyor will issue a proposal detailing the items which will be covered during an inspection, together with planned inspection methods.  It may not be possible to complete all the inspection work on a single visit however you should be aware that omitting any stage will mean that essential checks cannot be carried out:

Out of the Water Inspection

The vessel needs to be out of the water to inspect all of the underwater hull, the keel, the drive shaft(s), sail drive(s) or stern drive, and the rudder or steering system.  If the boat is not already on the hard, it will need to be hoisted at some point during the inspection day in order to do this.  The cost of the lift out and back in (or vice versa) is an expense normally borne by the buyer and should be factored into the survey costs, however a keen seller may be willing to bear some or all of this.

Part of the underwater hull inspection for a fibreglass vessel will involve moisture meter readings which need to be taken after the hull has been given time to thoroughly dry – this may take an hour or two in the tropics or considerably longer in a colder climate and obviously needs to be factored in if this test is to be carried out effectively; metal hulled vessels may be subject to plate thickness testing using ultrasound.  Both of these tests can take some time to correctly set up and execute.

The balance of the vessel structure and systems examination work can be completed out in or out of the water and there is a long list of things to check.  This list will be detailed in the survey proposals you receive.

Mast & Rigging Inspection

Whilst it is possible to do a rigging inspection aloft, the additional demands of managing photographic equipment and inspection tools at height can mean that the surveyor may miss things; a mast and rigging inspection can only really be thoroughly carried out when the mast is at ground level and fittings can be turned, flexed, shaken and very closely examined.  Defects in fittings may be microscopic, but even a tiny defect can cause the failure of a chainplate or stay which can bring down the mast.

Most of the accredited surveyor organisations (and many insurers) stipulate that a mast should be unstepped and inspected at least every five years, and that the entire standing rigging should be replaced every ten.  Although the actual length of time that the rigging lasts depends on the vessel usage and other factors, this is a useful guideline.  Buyers must remember that components have been designed with a lifespan in mind and that even sitting on the dock a mast and rigging are subject to stresses from the wind and the boat movement which will eventually lead to fatigue.  It’s also worth knowing that modern, cost effective stainless steel rigging wire from China has a different metal ‘recie’ than older stainless steels and is liable to corrode and fail much more quickly.

Sea Trial

A vessel inspection on the hard or alongside the dock does not tell you everything you need to know about a vessel.  In order to thoroughly test the engine, the steering, the navigation electronics, the sails and line handling equipment, a sea trial is essential.  This will involve taking the vessel out on the water to perform a ‘real life’ evaluation and the seller should provide someone competent and approved by the insurance company to captain the boat for the duration of the trial.

What you Should Expect from a Yacht Surveyor in a Pre-Purchase Survey?

The surveyor in a pre-purchase survey works for the buyer.  He has a duty to report to the buyer any and all concerns that he has regarding the vessel prior to the exchange of contracts.    The surveyor you choose should be professional in every way from the moment of first contact; the process generally goes something like this:

  • You (the client) complete an enquiry form online or send an email requesting a quotation.
  • The surveyor will contact you by phone or email to confirm your requirements
  • He will send you a proposal with pricing covering the work which he considers necessary to fulfil your request or requirements.
  • You may gather several proposals and seek references before choosing a surveyor.
  • You will confirm the appointment of your surveyor and a contract exists from that point; expect to pay a deposit to confirm the agreement.
  • The surveyor will arrange with the vendor or broker, and the boatyard if appropriate, to confirm a date and time to carry out the inspection work.  This may involve more than one visit.
  • The surveyor will prepare for the visit by researching the particulars of the vessel in question and exploring known issues for that particular model which will help guide an inspection.  He may contact engineers or repairers close to the boat location to determine the extent of any recent work.
  • The surveyor will attend the boat to carry out the inspection(s) and provide you with verbal feedback at the end of the day on any major findings during the visit(s).
  • The surveyor will provide a final detailed written report upon which you can base any further negotiations and finalise your decision regarding your boat purchase.  This report is also often used subsequently to support an insurance application for the vessel.  You should expect to wait between two and five days following an inspection visit to receive a written report which needs to be prepared, proof-read and sometimes translated before being issued.

NB
Insurers may stipulate that certain recommendations made in the report are carried out as a condition of cover.

Limitations of a Pre-Purchase Survey

A surveyor’s time on the day(s) of the visit is valuable and he is there to provide a professional inspection service on your behalf.  He does not have the time to clear out personal belongings or to take fixtures and fittings apart in order to more closely inspect something unless it is evident that such dismantling or clearing is essential to confirm a finding.

He can only inspect that which he has access to during the time of the survey visit(s) and to record findings at that point in time.  Where it’s not possible to gain adequate access, which may be the case if items have been built over as part of the construction, or if there are things which need to be moved or dismantled, he will be unable to form an opinion concerning those items.  

Anything which is inaccessible for whatever reason will be noted in the survey report and may affect the conclusions concerning the vessel.  Sellers should take the time to unlock anything that is locked and to empty out lockers to facilitate access to structures or to remove items which would otherwise impede or influence a thorough inspection.  

If a finding is subsequently remedied, he may be able to amend his report if adequate evidence is provided by the seller before the report is finalised. 

How Much Does a Pre-Purchase Boat Survey Cost?

A pre-purchase survey is normally priced per foot of boat length, although there are some surveyors who charge by the hour, or who have a fixed rate.  The price is set by the individual surveyor and varies from one to the other.  As a ballpark, you should expect to pay between USD $20 to $30 per foot before tax for vessels up to 50’ provided the entirety of the survey work (including ancillary inspections and a sea trial) can be completed in a single day.  Additional charges will apply where more than one visit is necessary and travel expenses are normally charged at cost.

Larger vessels with more complex systems may take longer than a day to inspect and involve specialist surveyors and/or testing methodology, therefore costs will vary with the level of time and expertise or specialist services needed to provide a thorough report.

Should the Buyer attend the Pre-Purchase Survey?

It is always beneficial for a prospective buyer to attend the survey if possible, although the surveyor can be relied on to complete the inspection in any case.  At the end of the inspection, the surveyor may take you through the main findings and it is good to see things pointed out to you rather than reading them on a report and trying to interpret photographs.

Conclusion

A pre-purchase survey should be an integral part of the buying process if you are planning to use the vessel you’re buying to carry people you care about.  Not only will a skilled surveyor provide you with feedback on the safety and value of the vessel you’re buying, he will also provide you with a validation of the vessel particulars, or a valuable bargaining tool where faults are evident on that dream boat that you simply must have.  

Think twice before missing this step on your next new or used boat purchase!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Bartlett is an IIMS Surveyor, a Commercial Skipper of sailing boats, and a boat owner for over 30 years. She lives in St Martin in the Caribbean and provides yacht surveys, skippering and marine consultancy throughout the Caribbean.

Leave a Comment