Wise Boat Purchase Can Hinge on a Surveyor

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Whether you are thinking of spending $20,000 for a weekend trailer boat, $100,000 for a family cruiser or a cool million for an oceangoing yacht, how do you make sure the vessel is worth its price tag?

One way is to hire a marine surveyor to inspect and appraise the boat before you buy it. Most banks and insurance companies require a professional survey before they will finance or insure a used vessel. Some even require surveys of new boats.

Smart buyers hire a surveyor before plopping down their life savings to buy a trim beauty that may turn out to be a floating lemon in disguise. Surveyors can help dampen the ardor of such misplaced love, saving you thousands of dollars and years of heartache.

"I remember a man who was paying $20,000 for a steel boat," says one marine surveyor, who asked not to be identified. "I took one look at the boat and it looked like trouble. I tapped it with my hammer and knocked a hole right through the hull. I told the man the boat was worthless. But he was already in love with the boat and he kept saying, 'But is anything really wrong with it?' It took me 30 minutes to explain to him all the things that were wrong with the boat. In the end, he decided not to buy it."

Marine surveyors--professionals who crawl through boats, tapping on hulls, inspecting hoses, poking fingers into bilges--are a misunderstood lot, according to Newport Beach surveyor Mike Ramey. "Most people think a marine survey means going out and measuring the depth of the ocean. That is not what it is at all."

Marine surveyors spend hours inspecting boats to make sure they are safe and sound. "A survey is pretty comprehensive," says Ron Tyson, who has been inspecting vessels for 10 years. "We look at it from stem to stern and look at every system from machinery to electronics to heads. A survey is a safety inspection of the vessel. We are looking at the boat to make sure it complies with National Fire Protection Agency standards and to American Boat and Yachting Council standards."

Most surveyors have a few safety horror stories to tell. For example, Ramey remembers walking on a live-aboard boat in Newport Beach and looking in the bilges. "The bilges were filled with gasoline," he says. "The fuel tanks had leaks in them and the people had been living on this boat and had not noticed. Why it never caught on fire is still a mystery to me."

Looking for leaky fuel lines is top priority for most surveyors. A recent change in Coast Guard rules requires all boat owners to replace old neoprene fuel lines with new approved fuel lines, according to Tyson. The change was required because the additives in the new, unleaded gasolines can permeate the old hoses, resulting in dangerous fuel leaks.

"Still, three years after the change, we are finding boats with these old lines," he says. "I just surveyed an old gasoline-powered boat that had the neoprene-type lines."

Tyson's survey report included the requirement that the boat's fuel lines be replaced to prevent a potential gas leak. "Gasoline in the bilge is the equivalent of throwing a lighted stick of dynamite down there," he says.

Other common problems encountered by surveyors include deteriorated hose clamps that could cause a boat to take on water and sink; improperly installed bilge pumps; running lights that don't work, and leaks in the exhaust system.

"My theory is that if you don't find something wrong with the boat, then you are not doing your job as a surveyor," says Roby Bessent, a Long Beach surveyor who conducts surveying seminars for Orange Coast College.

In addition to the safety aspect of the survey, another important part is the appraisal. "We go through and establish a replacement and market value," Tyson says. "Banks and insurance companies are interested in these before they will make a loan or place an insurance value on a boat."

Surveyor Ramey says: "We arrive at an appraisal so that boats are not sold for way more than they are worth."

Marine surveyors are not licensed, but most do belong to professional organizations such as the National Assn. of Marine Surveyors. And many, such as Roby Bessent, who has been surveying boats in California for 27 years, are licensed skippers.

Others such as Gary Worobec of G.T.W. Marine Surveys are former boat builders. "A surveyor needs a good, basic, general boating background," says Worobec, who also worked as a diesel mechanic. "And you have to be able to write, because a survey is actually a story about the boat. We go through the different aspects of the boat and inspect it. There are a lot of people who can inspect a vessel, but if you can't put it down on paper, it is not of use to anyone."

Worobec suggests that, if you are looking for a reputable surveyor, you ask a bank or an insurance company who they use. "This is like any other professional business," he says. "If your phone does not ring, you are just another guy on the street. Good surveyors have experience and a professional clientele that relies on them for services."

In the surveying profession, reputation is everything, Ramey says. "Banks, lending institutions and so forth do not deal with firms that are not reputable," he says. "Surveyors are usually people who have been in the marine field for a long time."

Most surveyors charge according to the length of the boat; prices range from $8 to $11 a foot.

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