No one wants to overpay for a boat, so how can you get a good idea of its worth.
Keep in mind that estimates from any service presume clean boats typically and appropriately equipped with everything in proper working order. For boats with limited resale activity, reliable valuations can't be developed until a model and year's production has been circulating for at least three years. And remember that no one can give you an accurate value of a boat sight unseen; that requires the knowledge of an experienced marine surveyor, who spends some hands-on time on the boat. Less popular and custom boats will also need to have a qualified marine surveyor appraise them. For boats that don't require a survey, online websites can help give you a sense of the value. And don't assume asking price — there's usually room for negotiation.
If you're buying a jon boat or canoe, a visual inspection is probably enough to determine the overall condition of the boat, but few of us are expert enough to know about all the systems in a larger boat. Fortunately, there are professionals called "marine surveyors" who are experts. If you're going to spend a few thousand dollars or more on a boat, you need to hire one; it could be the most important buying decision you'll make.
A marine survey, which can be a couple of dozen pages long, is a snapshot of the condition and valuation of a boat on a specific day. Think of it this way: Buyers and sellers can speak for themselves, but an independent marine survey speaks for the boat. Because of its depth of information, it has several uses: It's designed to give a potential buyer a clear picture of the condition of the boat with respect to U.S. Coast Guard regulations and nationally recognized standards, to provide a fair market value for the boat, and to document any potentially dangerous deficiencies in the boat's systems.
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A marine survey is also a useful tool for buyers when negotiating price based on what repairs or upgrades the boat needs. And finally, insurance and lending companies that need to know the true condition and fair market value of a vessel often require it. Insurance underwriters carefully read through a marine survey to determine whether the vessel is a good risk, and they may require an owner to address certain deficiencies.
Get The Right Surveyor
Make sure the surveyor you hire is one you find yourself or
through a recommendation — never one recommended by
the seller or broker.
You wouldn't hire a plumber to rewire your house; the same goes for surveyors. Finding a qualified marine surveyor or a specialist is a matter of knowing where to look.
Marine surveyors are not regulated or licensed, so virtually anyone can call him- or herself a surveyor, and many unqualified people do. A good indicator of competence is a surveyor who has professional affiliations with the American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC), plus either the National Association of Marine Surveyors (NAMS) or the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS).
Choose a surveyor who is familiar with the type of boat you're interested in. Some specialize in power, some in sail, others in wooden or metal boats. Never hire a marine surveyor referred to you by the seller or broker! A surveyor should have absolutely no affiliation with boat brokers, dealers, boat-repair shops, or others whose living depends on the sale or repair of boats — especially the one you're about to buy.
There are three main types of surveys done on a boat you're considering buying, and each requires special training to do them well. Sometimes one surveyor can do everything, but sometimes you may have to hire more than one.
Get The Right Survey
A condition and valuation survey (C&V) covers the hull and structures as well as the boat's systems. This type of thorough survey is usually required for insurance and financing; it's sometimes referred to as a "prepurchase survey." Whether your insurance company or lender requires it or not, BoatUS recommends always getting one before buying.
A proper C&V survey requires the boat to be hauled so the hull and underwater gear can be inspected. Good surveyors inspect a boat top to bottom, fore and aft. They'll look at the hull and deck and determine by sounding with a hammer and moisture meter whether there are voids or delamination, and they can identify places in the core that may eventually rot and become soft (and expensive to repair) before they're detectable by a buyer. A surveyor checks the condition of AC and DC electrical systems, plumbing and thru-hull fittings, deck hardware, propane and fuel systems, steering and controls, and safety equipment.
A proper marine survey will be an in-depth written report that evaluates the boat according to U.S. Coast Guard regulations as well as ABYC and National Fire Protection Association standards. A knowledgeable surveyor will also know if a specific make has a history of major problems. Don't rely on a survey prepared for a previous owner, even if it was done recently. A boat could have suffered damage since the last survey.
Engine surveys cover the operation and condition of propulsion and generator engines. Typically they include inspection of controls, electrical, cooling, and exhaust systems, as well as engine mounts. Compression, engine, and exhaust temperatures are also checked, and engine surveys typically include tests of oil samples, too.
But how do you know if you need one? Alison Mazon, a surveyor in Portland, Oregon, is one of a handful of hull surveyors who also does engine surveys. "An engine survey is warranted for particularly expensive or complex engines, and those with obvious lack of maintenance," says Mazon. "Many larger engines built since about 2006 have computers that can be read by trained personnel with the right equipment. A quick scan for computer faults may be a sign a more detailed analysis is needed."
A rigging survey looks at the condition of a sailboat's mast and boom and associated rigging. Inspections are made of attachment points, welds, standing and running rigging, and the mast step. Rigging surveyors either go up the mast or inspect the rig when it's off the boat. Whether a rigging survey is needed depends on the age, prior use of the rig, and its intended purpose.
Red flags that would signal the need for a rigging survey include a rig more than 10 years old, frayed stays, cracked swages, weeping chainplates, and turnbuckles that are bottomed out. The rig also needs to be surveyed if the boat will be used offshore or heavily raced.
Here's what a good survey provides:
- The condition of the boat and its equipment. A marine survey determines the condition of the boat's visible components and accessible structures at the time of the inspection. A survey provides a list of deficiencies as well as needed repairs and focuses on safety. Deficiencies in a survey can be used to renegotiate the sales price or scrap the deal altogether if needed repairs are too expensive or complicated.
- The value of the boat. Surveyors use pricing guides along with their vast experience in valuing boats. A seller or broker may think a boat has a specific worth, but until a survey is performed, those figures are only guesses. Banks and insurance companies use the survey value to determine loan and insurance hull value amounts. This is also a great tool for price negotiations and can easily pay for the cost of the survey.
- A budget for repairs and maintenance. Nearly any boat will have some defects and deficiencies. Knowing what they are beforehand makes it easier to know how much to budget for the future. Surveys typically provide a prioritized list of recommended repairs. The most important ones are critical to safety, and usually your insurance company will require them to be completed. The rest are things that can be done as you find time and money.
Recommendations are just that — issues the surveyor found on the boat that may need to be addressed. It's the "may" part that's important here. Typically, a surveyor will list recommendations in order of importance, often as A, B, or C.
A-list recommendations (more properly called "must-dos") are the most important ones. You can be sure your insurance company will require them — not just for your boat, but for the safety of you and your crew. These are issues that, unaddressed, can cause your boat to sink, burn, become involved in an accident, or cause serious injury. Even if you're not financing or insuring a boat, these recommendations need to be addressed before the boat is used:
- Worn or damaged below-waterline hoses, seacocks, and thru-hull fittings that pose a sinking hazard
- AC or DC wiring deficiencies that could cause a fire
- Lack of or nonfunctioning Coast Guard-required equipment, such as fire extinguishers, flares, or navigation lights
- Propane system deficiencies that could cause an explosion
- A vessel with too much horsepower that could make it unstable
- Lack of operable carbon-monoxide alarms
- Unsecured batteries or fuel tanks that could break loose and damage the hull, or cause a fire
- Missing oil-spill and waste-management placards. These are required by law and will be checked during a Coast Guard inspection
These tend to include either (1) items that are not an immediate risk but will pose an unacceptable hazard if left uncorrected for too long or (2) things that may enhance the safety, value, and enjoyment of your boat. Some of these may cross over into A-list recommendations as far as underwriters are concerned and may also need to be addressed before your boat can be insured. For the most part, they're things you'll want to do, anyway. Here are some examples:
- Hoses and wires that are chafing or not installed to ABYC standards
- Worn cutless or rudder bearings
- Stiff or corroded steering or control cables
- Engine maintenance needed to forestall a larger problem
- Cleats or stanchions that need to be rebedded to prevent deck-core rot
- Heavy corrosion on fuel or water tanks
The C-list generally includes normal upkeep items that should be addressed as you can.
- water leaks through ports or hatches,
- anodes in need of replacement,
- loose or worn engine belts, hoses, and engine mounts,
- cosmetic issues, and
- winches in need of service.
Keep in mind that while surveyors inspect a boat with an eye toward industry safety standards, such as those written by ABYC, they recognize that newer standards were not in place when older boats were built. But some of those standards, like the need for carbon-monoxide alarms or proper wiring, are critical enough that insurance underwriters may still require boats to comply with them.
All of the recommendations can be used as negotiation points for buyers. Any purchase contract should specify that a sale may be voided if the survey results are unacceptable to the buyer. In some cases, a seller may choose to do the required repairs before a sale, but make sure the boat is reinspected before the sale is finalized. Typically, surveyors will reinspect specific items for a fee once the sale is made and sign off that they have been properly done.
If, after the sale, the buyer chooses to make the repairs him- or herself, insurance coverage can begin immediately while the repairs are in progress. But either way, the insurance company will usually require proof — a written statement from the owner or yard bills — to confirm the recommendations have been completed correctly.
Attend The Survey Inspection
A good surveyor welcomes prospective buyers to be present at the survey. There's no better way to learn about your new boat than watching a professional methodically dig through it. The surveyor's notes will be more meaningful if he's able to discuss with you what he's examining. He'll also answer questions that might not be significant enough to be included in the written report, and can tell you about problems he's seen on similar boats that you can watch out for.