Looking for surveyors and getting our butts kicked

Since we’ve never owned a boat before, we’ve accepted that looking like a fool is and will be par for the course. Which is why I’m getting my butt kicked everyday on the forums. But in a nice way. People have been very willing to share their knowledge and wisdom and guide me when I’m heading off in the wrong direction. Writing these posts help me to synthesize all the great information and to share what I’ve learned.

In looking for a yacht broker, I sensed a general feeling of distrust. Some don’t even think they are necessary. We decided to go with the one who was recommended by several people as generally being a stand-up guy with a good reputation (though I did call around and talked to another broker). Now we’re focusing our attention on getting a surveyor — the most important person during this process in our minds.

The wrong order of things
Tom Neale pointed out in his book All in the Same Boat that the order in which a surveyor is brought to the deal is off. Likewise, a comment one forum poster made was that by the time a surveyor is contacted, pressure is on to make the sale successful rather than keeping  the exit door open for the buyer if the boat is not worthy. In short, “Don’t dump the whole problem in a surveyor’s lap at the very end of your search.”

The forest for the trees
One word of advice I received was that we wouldn’t know if our surveyor is any good until six months after our purchase. “I’ve done a lot of the repair work that follows a typical survey,” one poster noted, “and as a rule, I’m very disappointed by what surveyors, in general, completely overlook.” Yikes! However, my friend Tim from Windhorse believes that people expect miracles from their surveyor, “They are reviewing the entire boat and all of its systems in 6 or so hours.”

I was warned that many owners repair a component within a system (plumbing, electrical, fuel, whatever) that is overall, essentially junk. Surveyors can note what works and what doesn’t, “but it’s rare to see one recommend system-wide replacement of old gear, usually because the gear is still limping along. The cost of that would almost always kill the deal.”

Taking matters into your own hands
The only practical solution, according to my sage advisors, is for the buyer to do an initial survey before calling in a professional. Or bring a knowledgeable friend who could help you with the initial survey. “Doing a basic survey yourself is part of the shopping process.”

Okay, so I’m going to have to learn how do the initial inspection to weed out the lemons. That’s a post for another day.

Finding a surveyor
Many experienced boat buyers are leery of the relationship between the broker and the surveyor. One recommended phoning around brokers in our area and be sure to NOT hire anyone a broker recommends (because they’re more likely to work toward a successful sale, than protect the client). Instead, he suggests asking for surveyors that the brokers recommend avoiding.

Walking the docks and getting names is the next step. I was advised to find someone who knows boat repair, rather than just a regular boater who happens to like their surveyor. Ask for the name of people who really knows boats, preferably with a career history of hanging upside down in tight spaces, doing repairs. Then find that person and ask him or her for names of surveyors.

The overlap between the broker’s “don’t like” list and the savvy boat owners’ list is a starting point for interviews. Here is some of the advice I received in evaluating surveyors:

  • Avoiding any surveyor who doesn’t look fit enough to climb a mast or squirm into a lazarette. My friend says that a surveyor should climb the mast.
  • A good surveyor is tight lipped and  focusing on your needs. He shouldn’t care if you buy the boat or not.
  • Find a surveyor who sails, cruises, or races. Insist on a sea trial in moderate weather. The surveyor should study the rigging, see if the mast stays in column, and look below for leaks from keel bolts on one tack or the other, etc.
  • Look for one that’s a real pain in the butt, a tough cookie. You don’t want nice. You want one who is relentless in pursuit of weaknesses and problems.

Interviewing a surveyor
These are some of the questions we came up with in interviewing surveyors: How many years experience doing boat surveys; what types of boats and sizes you tend to survey; any certifications (I was told this was not as important, although insurance companies will often only take surveys from SAMS® and NAMS® accredited/certified surveyors); do you cruise, race or sail; will you climb the mast; geographic coverage or how far will you travel; how much a survey will cost including travel rates (also warned to “better to focus on finding a good one and then, at least mentally; write a blank check. Surveying and inspections is not the place to try to save money”); what we should expect as the deliverable; when should we expect the deliverable.

The deferred maintenance plan
Some argue that used boats are traditionally overpriced, because a great deal of deferred maintenance is always waiting for the new owner.

By the time you replace all the wiring and electrical stuff, all the the plumbing, the engines’ cooling and fuel delivery systems on a typical twenty or thirty year old boat, you’ll probably spend the purchase price all over again. But sometimes that’s what it takes to make an older boat reliable.

Eyes wide open. Wish us luck.