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A good surveyor is a sleuth on your side

One longtime boat inspector details the way he works and the agreements he has with his clients

The marine surveyor is a fact-finder hired to go over a boat with a fine-tooth comb, find out what's shipshape and what's not, and through careful inspection help the client make an intelligent decision about whether to buy the boat.

A surveyor will tap the hull with a small hammer to check for delamination.

Surveyor Jerry Schmitt, speaking at a Florida Yacht Brokers Association seminar on closings and the law earlier this year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says he never tells a client to buy or not buy. He will reveal what he has found, recommend repairs or upgrades to ensure the boat is fit for its intended service, and estimate fair market value and replacement cost, based on published sources.

Schmitt does not use invasive techniques - cutting, sawing or hacking - to uncover defects. He will tap the hull with a small hammer (percussion testing) to check for delamination, and he can use a moisture meter to detect water in the hull and infrared thermography to find voids and delamination.

Navy retiree Schmitt is a graduate of the Chapman School of Seamanship's small-craft survey school in Stuart, Fla., regional director of the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors and owner of Schmitt Marine in Fort Pierce, Fla. He warns that surveyors are not licensed and recommends finding one who is a member of SAMS or the National Association of Marine Surveyors because both have "strong bylaws and a strong code of ethics." That code includes a surveyor's duty to be professionally competent, to honestly present all relevant facts to the client and to avoid conflicts of interest.

Schmitt says it's important for a surveyor to hew strictly to the code of ethics. If a transaction goes to court, breaches of the code almost certainly will come to light.

He says during a typical job he spends six hours on the boat - in the water at dockside, out of the water and on sea trials - and five hours writing the report. He recommends that the client accompany him on the survey. A well-executed survey and report can help acquaint the buyer with the boat, he says.

The survey can help a buyer determine if the boat is fit for its intended use.

Schmitt says a survey is a technical investigation into the construction and condition of a boat, its components and systems at a particular moment - when he surveys it. The report should include a list of findings and recommendations, the vessel's estimated value, reports on all federally mandated equipment and lots of photos documenting construction and condition. Schmitt says it should explain how the surveyor arrived at the value estimate.

There are prepurchase surveys for the buyer; an insurance survey for an insurer; and an appraisal survey for purposes that include a divorce settlement or establishing a boat's value for an estate auction. He says supplemental surveys by specialists in engines, rigging, electrical systems, electronics or corrosion may be required.

By agreeing to do a survey, the surveyor enters into an implied contract with a client, Schmitt says. For self-protection, he recommends signing contracts in advance. It should specify the boat, engine, the boat's location, what the survey report will include, and the survey and haulout schedule. It should also include the boat's intended use, cruising waters, and fees for the survey and an out-of-water inspection and sea trial, along with a boarding authorization.

Schmitt inserts a clause that says the owner or captain, not the surveyor, will operate engines, machinery and equipment during the survey. He says the contract should note that the report is for the exclusive use of the client and include such disclaimers as:

  • The report is submitted in good faith.
  • The surveyor offers no warranty for latent defects undetectable by normal inspection methods.
  • The boat will be inspected for compliance with Coast Guard regulations in Titles 33 and 46 of the federal code, American Boat and Yacht Council voluntary standards and the standards of the National Fire Protection Association, but "complete compliance with such standards varies with the intended service of the vessel and is not guaranteed."
  • The surveyor will inspect spars and rigging from the deck level only and inspect only working sails during the sea trial. Furled or bagged sails are not inspected unless other arrangements are made.
  • The surveyor may recommend an engine mechanic or rigger to inspect these components.
  • Determination of inherent design and stability characteristics is beyond the normal scope of the marine survey.
  • The survey report does not guarantee the future condition of the boat.
  • The surveyor is not an engineer and does not possess any specialized knowledge beyond that commonly held by others in the field.
  • The surveyor is not liable for damages resulting from reliance on the survey report, and any claim to damages is waived upon use of the report.
  • The surveyor is not liable for any sum greater than the fee paid for the survey report in any legal action.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.