Looking for a Competent Marine Surveyor? Good Luck!

A Commentary, by Merrill Hall, JJT 26 “Lucy Ann”

Sooner or later you’ll need a survey. The worst time is when your trusted insurance agent calls and tells you to get one…at your expense, of course. On the other hand, you could be buying a boat and you should be having a survey done before you own the barge. This is always a good idea for most land based air breathing mammals. In either case, hunting down a competent marine surveyor is not a simple task.

A little background music, Maestro…Back in the middle 1990s, I was doing pre-listing inspections for my wife’s small boat brokerage (Pocket Cruisers). Small cruisers yielded small commissions and the last thing she needed was for a boat deal to fail because of a negative survey. I looked at around one-hundred boats and labeled about 30% as “junk”. Pocket Cruisers never lost a sale due to a bad survey. As luck would have it, a local surveying company offered to teach me the fine art and took me on as an apprentice. In 2005, I passed the exam and was accredited SAMS-AMS (Yachts & Small Craft) by the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors and have worked for HMS (Maine surveying company) until retiring in 2011. As a retired surveyor, I can be blunt and opinionated without ruffling any feathers.

There is no federal or state licensing of marine surveyors. Anybody can call themselves a surveyor and print up some business cards. But these characters have no credibility with insurance companies or lending institutions and their surveys are generally not accepted. The bankers and insurance guys will accept surveys from surveyors that have received “CMS” (from NAMS) or “AMS” (from SAMS).

The two major professional organizations that “accredit” or “certify” marine surveyors are SAMS (The Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors) and NAMS (The National Association of Marine Surveyors). Although their members say differently, both organizations are essentially the same with similar requirements and activities.

Examinations – Although I only took the SAMS test, I understand that they are both very similar. It wasn’t a difficult exam but covered a lot of ground in a relatively short time. Many parts required info that only someone who was an experienced surveyor would know. I passed.

Ongoing education (OE) – Both groups have periodic meetings both regional and national. You get OE points for attending the educational seminars. If you don’t accumulate enough points, they strike you from the roster (supposedly). I don’t know if this has ever happened. A SAMS member can attend a NAMS OE event and have those points transferred and visa versa. Over the years, about half of the info was valuable and half was junk. It should have been better.

Codes of Ethics – The two organizations have similar codes. They both overuse words like professional and professionalism, ethics and ethical without knowing their definitions. They blat out a full page of drivel where one sentence would cover it all – “A professional marine surveyor will serve only in the best interests of his/her client”. This is all you need.

Oversight – Neither organization practices oversight. If you get a lousy, poorly done survey and complain to the head office, they’ll do nothing even if you can clearly prove that the surveyor was in violation of the codes of ethics. Now, if you sue the surveyor (for errors & omissions), and you win, they may take some action but I’ve never heard of any actions being taken.

Case in Point – Joe from Australia was buying a sailboat here in the States so that he could cruise the Maine coast for a few summers. Joe had only seen the broker’s listing sheet and would not personally see the boat until months after the closing. His surveyor of choice, Ed, was a NAMS-CMS and a SAMS-AMS surveyor. Joe telephoned Ed and detailed what his expectations were of a pre-purchase survey and that included full photos of any areas of concern plus additional interior and exterior pics to illustrate the overall condition of the vessel. The survey came in with no photos of anything. The report itself was incomplete…looked like a check-off sheet…and missed items that constituted dangerous conditions that were clearly a liability to the safety of the vessel. Ed had noticed that there were barnacles on the boot top at the stern. His recommendation – “Raise the boot top”. He didn’t see that the “scum line” showed the bow raised about 8” and the stern down by the same. The boat had obviously been sinking due to leakage in the cockpit sole hatches and the prop shaft stuffing box that was corroded to the point of uselessness. Adding to the sinking picture was a loose leaking stern tube. All of this was obvious to anyone with reasonably good vision and intelligence slightly greater than a cherrystone clam. A series of over sixty emails passed between Joe, Ed, and the broker before things were somewhat cleared up. When Joe tried to get insurance, his company refused to accept Ed’s survey. Joe had to get another one done.

A formal complaint was filed with the Ethics Committees of both SAMS and NAMS. The complaint included all documentation and emails. No action was taken. Both Ethics Committees judged that the complaint was “civil in nature and not an ethical issue”.

Joe commented, “I dodged the bullet because I decided not to sail the boat to Maine. If I had, there would most probably be substantial financial damages and perhaps criminal action. Given that both organizations ignored the complaint, I will never again accept SAMS/NAMS surveyors as members of viable professional organizations”.

Hunting for a good one (this shouldn’t be a crap shoot)

  1. Go to the SAMS & NAMS websites and list down the surveyors in your area. This is only a start. The listed surveyors have at least passed an exam and should be somewhat current with today’s technologies. There’s no guarantee of competence here, but it’s better than nothing.

  2. If you need a survey for insurance underwriting, ask your insurance person and see if the name(s) you get match any on the NAMS/SAMS list. Put a check by that name or names.

  3. Ask other boat owners and people at boat yards. Some info may be just scuttlebutt but anything is better than nothing. Put a check by that name or names.

  4. Go online to some of the boat forums and see if you can get any recommendations. Put a check by that name or names.

  5. Ask a new boat salesman whose company accepts trades. Very often a dealer will have a surveyor look at a boat before being accepted as a trade-in. I’ve done more than a few. Put a check by that name or names.

  6. Now, go back to your NAMS/SAMS list of candidates. Any checked more than once? Those will be your first candidates for further investigation.

  7. Call each one.

    1. Discuss fees i.e. total cost when all the dust clears.

    2. Ask for a sample survey of the type you are requesting.

    3. Ask for references e.g. recent survey clients that you can contact.

    4. Ask whether or not the survey references ABYC, NFPA, CFR standards.

    5. Ask how fair market value is determined. Pure guesswork is not allowed.

A few cautions:

  • Don’t ask a surveyor (who is too booked) for a recommendation of another surveyor. I have seldom seen other surveyors’ work. Given that, I’m as much in the dark as you are. I made a recommendation once and lived to regret it. In the “Case in Point” above, who do you think got Joe (the Australian) into trouble in the first place.

  • Don’t sign up for an “Insurance Inspection”. This is an inexpensive “check list” format that will most probably be rejected by your insurance company. Ask for a full condition and value survey.

  • Don’t be impressed by titles. Many surveyors are ex professional mariners. You see a lot of “captains” out there. The title is supposed to instill confidence. It’s the same level of confidence that you would have if you hired a long-distance truck driver to inspect your kid’s mini-bike. I held a Masters License for over fifteen years and nobody ever called me Captain. I preferred Skipper until a crewman slipped and called me Scupper and that title stuck for years.

In short – Go with SAMS/NAMS surveyors only, do your homework, ask around, talk to several surveyors. There are many good ones out there. All you need is one. Good luck!

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