Skip to main content

The Smart Buyer - Buying tips from a marine surveyor

There’s a saying that life’s too short to own an ugly boat. That may be true, but a boat with beautiful lines can lead to a potential owner ignoring its flaws and purchasing a nightmare.

Surveyor George Gallup, here inspecting an engine compartment, recommends using a bright light in hard-to-see places.

“When looking at a boat that you may want to buy, always think with your head and not your heart,” says marine surveyor George Gallup (

“I’ve seen too many clients who fell in love with a boat’s aesthetics and overlooked its shortcomings.”

The result is a frustrated, unhappy boater. So when you’re ready to seriously shop, it’s a good idea to prepare for the experience in a no-nonsense, businesslike manner. Bottom line: Buying a boat requires research, preparation and planning.

To cut down on the legwork, use a certified professional yacht broker ( as your buyer’s broker, says Gallup. “Let him do all the legwork concerning contacts, arrangements and paperwork,” he says.

There’s much work to do before you get to that point in the purchase process, however. Start by creating a list of makes and models you like. Then, visit manufacturer websites, contact dealers and join boat forums to read about the pros and cons of particular boats. Talk to your friends who are knowledgeable boaters.

“After doing your preliminary research go out into the field and look at as many of the potential vessels as possible,” says Gallup, 64, who was president of the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors ( in 2009-10 and has held a position on the American Boat & Yacht Council’s board of directors. He recommends using a three-ring binder to hold a list of the potential boats and key characteristics such as make, model, propulsion, engine hours and equipment.

“You can either grade [1 to 5] these areas or make annotations based on your inspection,” says Gallup. “Use this grading to help you make your decision. Take extensive digital photos. You can never remember all the details. The photos will help you to remember the details.”

Use a bright light to look in the bilges and other hard-to-see areas. Remove or open access panels, open storage areas, look under berths and in cockpit lockers. “Are they clean or dirty and visibly moldy?” says Gallup. “Is the equipment neat and orderly or messy? Is there an odor in certain areas? Take some time and sit in the cockpit, the dinette and at the nav station. Is the seating comfortable? Can you see all points from the helm station? Lay in the berths. Do you comfortably fit?”

Sit on the MSD and stand in the head. Walk around the boat. Do you feel safe? Make sure the side decks are wide enough and are covered with grippy nonskid, and take note of the number of handrails and their placement. “What you are doing is making sure the vessel is fit for your intended use,” says Gallup.

Study your list, research its contents further if need be and then narrow your choices.

Seek out a broker or contact the owner armed with a list of questions so he or she knows you have thought this through. “Are there maintenance records or receipts available for review?” says Gallup. “What maintenance has been done on the engine? What is the age of the sails? What services were performed when the vessel was laid up? Was the fuel treated? Had the vessel ever been involved in an accident or grounding?”

Now comes some number crunching. “Set up a spreadsheet on the total financial picture of the purchase: price, launch, possible haul-out for the survey inspection, possible bottom wash for the survey inspection, commissioning of the engine and systems if the vessel is laid up, insurance, taxes, and the cost of the prepurchase survey.”

Hire a professional marine surveyor. (SAMS or the National Association of Marine Surveyors can be good sources.) Contact several surveyors who live near the boat. Check their credentials, services and fees. “Not only will the survey tell you whether the boat is seaworthy and in good shape, it will tell you if the vessel is fit for its intended use,” says Gallup.

When considering a used boat, find out its usage history. “Really hard use and non-use are two things that kill boats,” says Gallup, who conducts about 200 surveys each year — power- and sailboats from 7 to 120 feet. He also surveys boats for insurance companies. “When they’re left alone, they’re degenerating. This means the buyer and surveyor have to pay extra attention and inspect the vessel extra-thoroughly.”

For a boat that has been sitting for a long stretch, the fuel system becomes even more of an issue. “Was the fuel treated?” says Gallup. “Do we need to treat the fuel before our sea trial?”

Hiring a surveyor is a good move even if the boat is new, says Gallup. “Unfortunately, it’s rare that a new boat owner goes this extra mile,” he says. “In the number of new-boat surveys I have completed, I have always found some issues that need to be corrected, mainly attention to details and ABYC recommendations concerning safe placement of electrical system components and parts.”

April 2014 issue