How to choose a surveyor

The niche trade of marine surveying has many specialty niches within it. There are marine surveyors who specialize in yachts and small craft, the specialty mostly familiar to the reader of our articles. There are ship surveyors, cargo surveyors, commercial fishing vessel surveyors, tug and barge surveyors and specialty surveyors within these niches. Yacht and small craft surveyors primarily perform two types of surveys, condition and valuation surveys and damage surveys.coin flip

Boat owners most commonly require the services of a marine surveyor when they are buying a boat or trying to obtain or renew insurance for their boat. Marine surveyors are the appraisers in the boating industry, and as such are often required for loans, estate issues, divorces and a myriad of other situations where a vessel’s value is required. A growing number of marinas are requiring marine surveys before allowing boats in, as evidenced by the regular calls we receive from boat owners looking to change marinas in the past few years.

So how should you choose a marine surveyor when you need one? Start by understanding what type of survey report you need, its potential uses and make a short list of surveyors able to give you what you need. Remember if you are buying a boat, the survey report may be required by a lender, insurance company and marina. So in addition to finding a marine surveyor who is able to professionally assess the condition of the boat, make sure the survey report will be accepted by the other institutions that may request a copy.

If you don’t have a relationship with a marine surveyor and are trying to develop that short list, consult with your broker (usually they give a list so as not to create any conflict or liability), ask your lender, your insurance agent, the boat yard, the marine manager or your boating neighbors. There are two recognized marine surveying organizations, S.A.M.S., the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors and N.A.M.S., the National Association of Marine Surveyors. Both maintain online rosters. Other marine surveyors are also great referral sources, your first choice is unavailable, ask them for a referral. Marine surveyors quickly develop a reputations (buyer’s surveyor or broker’s surveyor for instance), and most of the industry professionals are aware of the reputations. If you want a thorough surveyor, ask your broker about their list and if any surveyors are “too thorough” for their list. If you can trust your broker with all aspects of buying a boat, certainly they can be trusted with guidance regarding your choice of a marine surveyor.

After you have a short list, make a few calls; see which surveyor fits your personality. Ask them about their experience, what they do and don’t do and if they will allow or prefer you to attend. The pre-purchase marine surveying event is an excellent opportunity to share knowledge with clients and a great time for the buyer to begin to learn the vessel and its systems. For the truly diligent shopper, review survey reports. The written reports are an excellent way to compare marine surveyors and many surveyors will have sample reports online for easy access. If you need a survey, for insurance or a marina, then use price as another criteria; prices usually don’t vary much and should not be a criteria for choosing a surveyor you want to check out a boat for purchase (penny wise and pound foolish).

If you have a special need, a damaged boat or a unique boat, be sure to explain what you need and ask about the surveyor’s experience with it. Ethically a marine surveyor should decline any job that they are not qualified for, but “the buyer should also beware”.

Once you have chosen the marine surveyor, how can you get the most for your money? If you are buying a boat, we suggest you attend the inspection, spend as much time as you can with the surveyor, be interactive, ask questions and learn. Make sure that everything you care about is tested, try the windlass, all the refrigeration devices, the generator, electronics and through hull valves. Learn how to test that automatic bilge pump and after you buy it, test it occasionally. During the sea trial, take the helm, try the engine controls, auto pilot and change the pre-sets on the multi function electronic display. And then, ponder the water maker…

There are limitations during surveys. The surveyor should discuss the important ones during the survey so you can decide if you need something further. If you want to test everything, including the water maker, make the request before the survey and allow the broker or seller to arrange for anything required. Water makers are often “pickled” (preserved for longer periods of disuse), running them may require special knowledge and the seller may request they be returned to their pre-test state. Most other systems can be tested without prior planning, but you have to take a sea trial to test an autopilot and a surprising few sailors test the spinnaker gear or open all sails.

There are many important parts of a vessel that are difficult or impossible to fully assess. These include the condition of the fuel and integrity of tanks, condition of coring material, battery condition, proper function of tank level gauges, engine instruments, electronics and entertainment devices. Most of these can be assessed to a point but not completely. Many buyers do their homework before a survey, research known weaknesses on boat owner’s group web sites, discuss these issues and the surveyor may bring along a moisture meter, special scope, or other diagnostic tool that may help answer the important questions and reduce your risk. Additional inspections are occasionally necessary, the most common are mechanical surveys on engines, transmissions and generators, and rigging surveys on sailing systems.

After the survey is completed, we feel a thorough “de-brief” is crucial. It is much easier to understand what the survey is reporting if you can see, test, hear, or smell the problem first hand. Some items are removed from the list by including the seller or broker or calling the seller during the “de-brief”. The seller can tell you about the unlabeled circuit breaker that energizes the new chart plotter or the hidden circuit breaker for the windlass.

If you have a damaged boat, the insurance company will often hire a marine surveyor to assist them. In this capacity the insurance company’s surveyor will report on the cause of loss, scope of damage, and cost of repair. The marine surveyor will likely be fair, professional and ethical. There are times when the boat owner should hire their own surveyor. We suggest active communication and involvement during the decision-making portions of damage claims, don’t hesitate to hire your own surveyor should you feel the need, the cost of the surveyor is most often negligible relative to the cost of the repair.

The active boat owner, buyer, and seller will occasionally have other special needs. Marine surveyors are able to assist with project management for new builds or refits. Marine surveyors are used as experts in many types of litigation, including values, repair disputes, salvage issues, and transactional hiccups. We often receive calls from clients to discuss our opinions on normal boating decisions, such as cruising equipment and obscure but common issues, like waste odor. We often are asked for recommendations for service providers, captains, canvas companies, and an unlimited number of other specialties. A marine surveyor often has a wide and unbiased view point that is well suited for this type of assistance. We always welcome these inquiries; good will is integral to good service and we just might need a referral from you tomorrow.


This post was edited on February 24, 2016 at 11:20 AM.