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The Boat Survey

I suspect that most boat survey’s are horrible, especially if the boat being surveyed is more than 20 years old, ‘pre-loved’ as they say. And so it was for Umbrellas, the boat we’ve just bought (yes we really have bought her 😊), for sure if we’d seen the survey before viewing Umbrellas we’d have probably run a mile. The process of buying a boat was new to us and to be honest there isn’t a huge amount of help in understanding the process other than ‘make sure you get a full survey done’. So here’s how buying Umbrellas went.

By the way, do you like the name? Not a name we’d have chosen, but it is a proper phaff to change it, not least of which because Umbrellas has an ‘Umbrellas’ logo painted on the side, here it is.

The name is growing on us, either that or we’re just getting used to it, so I suspect Umbrellas will stay Umbrellas. We would like to know where the name came from, she’s an ex-hire boat and her name was changed two owners ago, and no idea why Umbrellas and why plural (not one Umbrella but several).

I digress again, back to the boat buying process. We went into the process, wanting to buy a boat but pretty naïve/green about what we were doing. Not the best combination. We had a first viewing of Umbrellas and were immediately hooked even though it was only the second boat we’d looked at. Umbrellas is the right size for us, the right style (cruiser stern), has bunk beds for the Grandkids and comes with a marina berth less than a mile from our house. We had a think overnight, went for a second viewing the next day and impulsively decided to put in an offer. The offer was a chunk less than the asking price and of course we knew we’d be covered by ‘subject to survey’, what could go wrong! In hindsight our naivity was that as soon as an offer is accepted, even though the purchase is subject to survey, you’re off down a road which is difficult to back out of. An impulse very quickly escalates. To our surprise the offer was accepted, but with a condition, the owners, for reasons I won’t disclose were keen to sell quickly but and accepted the price but only if we promised not to negotiate once we got the survey done. ‘OK’ says I (naivety comes to the fore again).

This process from here on in immediately gets more serious and committing. First off there’s a £1,000 deposit and pretty soon after a purchase agreement to sign. No worries, this is still subject to survey. We’re also obliged, by the purchase agreement, to some timescales, we have to name a surveyor within 5 days, have the boat surveyed within 4 weeks and complete the purchase (hand over the money) within 6 weeks. My contact list is woefully short of boat surveyors, but finding one, it turns out, was easy. The Marina gave me a name of a surveyor, Craig Allen, who they said is top notch for surveying on behalf of a buyer (as opposed to a seller, there shouldn’t be a difference but of course there is). The Internet confirmed Craig would indeed be a good choice. Ordinarily I wouldn’t name names in a public facing blog, but I’m sure Craig won’t mind given that I have nothing but good things to say about him. If you need your boat surveyed I would highly recommend Craig.

There now followed a good deal of phaff arranging a date for the survey. Whilst the marina has a boat yard, given this was just before Christmas and is already stacked out with a program of winter work, getting the boat lifted for a survey coincident with Craig’s availability was challenging. Nonetheless Craig and Gary at the boat yard were as helpful as they could be and a date of Jan 4th was agreed.

Now here comes another good dose of naivity. For a surveyor to do a proper job the boat needs to be out of the water and the hull needs to be pressure washed. No problem, but Gary tells me that because of the power of the pressure washer it may be the hull needs blacking (for non-boaty people that’s painted with Bitumen for protection) before putting back in the water. No problem I said, it needs blacking anyhow. But what I didn’t think of is that if we didn’t buy the boat I’ve just committed to the cost of blacking without discussing with the seller. Things are now getting pretty serious, our total liability, including the deposit, boat lift, survey and blacking is approaching £2,500, for a boat we haven’t agreed to buy yet! For sure, boat buying is not for the feint hearted.

All went well on Jan 4th, Umbrellas is ‘lifted’ (Well not so much lifted, more accurately pulled up the slip (is it a slip or a hard?) on a fancy nancy 'narrow boat trailer' thingy. It's a thing of wonder and makes life a lot easier. As planned Craig surveyed Umbrellas as planned and sent me a text to say the report would be ready by the end of the next day (wow!). So the next morning I thought I’d pop round to the boat yard to see Umbrellas in dry dock. On arrival, there she is, on blocks in the shed being blacked, here's some piccies.

I’m all smiles and delighted at how brilliantly things are going. Then I speak to Gary who says ‘sorry about the survey’. My delighted smiley world immediately crashes back to earth. ‘what about the survey’ says I. Gary apologised as he didn’t realise I hadn’t seen the report from Craig and tells me that there’s a problem with the toilet waste tank which has a hole in it and a recommendation that it's replaced. That doesn’t sound like a big problem until Gary explains that the tank is integral with the hull and will cost a lot (roughly five fortunes) to replace. The lower cost option is to de-commission the tank and install a cassette toilet. Lower cost is lower but still a lot (roughly 3 fortunes).

Gary tells me the survey has also recommended replacing the Aquadrive. I have no idea what this is, but it turns out it’s a very fancy universal joint between the engine and propellor. An Aquadrive, for the part alone, is about £1,000. I now have a lot of expletives running through my head which can be summarised as ‘oh bother’.

As an interlude I must mention how helpful canal folk are. As I said earlier I try not to include names in a blog because blogs are public facing, but I’m sure in this case the people concerned won’t mind. Everyone at the marina has been very helpful specifically Rory and Tina and in the boat yard Gary (as well as several people who work for Gary). I know I’m a customer, but it goes beyond that.

Back to the subject of the blog, the boat survey. I got the survey for Umbrellas as promised on January 5th and it is thorough and on first read (and probably second read as well) truly horrible. Surveyors by definition have to detail everything that is / could be a potential problem. The report makes recommendations and identifies those things which need rectifying and could be ‘insurance affecting’. As I mentioned before, Umbrellas is pre-loved and over 20 years old, so no surprise the list of recommendations in the report is long. In line with her age there are over 20 recommendations!

Faced with a survey like this (and I suspect most are like this) I would highly recommend the following: Read the survey once, fall off your chair, panic, then read it again. Fall off your chair again, panic more, go and sit in a darkened room for a while then read the report again to understand what it’s actually saying.

Here’s what Umbrellas report actually says. There is only one really really bad thing ((if we don’t sort it the boat could sink) which is to replace the basin outlet in the bathroom. Phew, no biggie. Now for the really bad things, of which there are only two. The waste tank needs dealing with and the Aquadrive needs replacing (although perhaps not immediately). Next are things which we think need sorting before the start of the season (buying a boat in the winter has it’s advantages!), in addition to the waste tank and Aquadrive. The upper bush on the tiller needs replacing (plastic, no biggie), the engine needs servicing, the engine mounts possibly need replacing (there is a suggestion that in the process we dispense with the Aquadrive, throw it in the canal and use a more conventional alignment technique), fix a leak in the bedroom (which turns out is where the waste tank outlet fixes to the hull, just water ingress).

Then there’s a bunch of stuff which is really cosmetic, as an example de-rust the gas locker. All of this can be added to our ‘boat to do list’ which I’m sure will be long anyhow and I can't believe that anyone who has a boat this age doesn't have a long list of stuff to do. None of these are a biggie as we have plans to use Umbrellas a lot but also we’re happy to spend time making her more beautiful 😊.

I think it’s also worth identifying in the survey what’s not wrong with a boat. For Umbrellas this list is also long. The hull is sound, the basic fit out is good, she has new domestic batteries, a new calorifier, a fairly new invertor, the engine is a long-lasting breed of engines which if looked after will last a good while longer.

The boat survey, whilst truly horrible, is still a wonderful thing. In our case we did ask and get another chunk off the price because there were two exceptional things wrong and the survey did stop this from being an truly impulsive purchase (not sure if that’s a good or bad thing). So the really exciting news for us is that, despite the survey, we are now the proud owners of a narrow boat, not just any narrow boat, we own Umbrellas. Since we bought her we’ve offered the use of Umbrellas, including training, to our kids when we’re not using her. We're thrilled that already we have a booking and our kids will be enjoying their inheritance early😊

In summary, the only sage advice I can give when it comes to boat surveys, to quote Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy is…


One last picture of Umbrellas, back in the water, awaiting remedial action before the start of a busy season with her new owners.

More soon.

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Feb 12

Enlightening, thank you for posting! It's rare to come across genuine first-hand experiences like this in narrowboating, especially from this stage in the buying process – but massively helpful.

Firstly, it confirms my terror! I'm yet to take the plunge, even after viewing boats I like. I don't have a ton of cash so need to be mindful re: paying for a survey - 100% necessary but not something I can do for /every/ boat (+ paying to re-black even if I walk away).

Secondly, it confirms my optimism: structural issues notwithstanding, the right boat even with issues is surmountable with time, patience, decent boatyard, and a few spare fortunes!

Wishing you all the best on Umbrella - hope you…

Feb 12
Replying to

Thanks Joey, that's really kind of you to say and glad our experience is useful. I'm planning to write more blogs on Umbrellas which I'll post, especially about toilets 🤣. If you take the plunge I'd be interested to know your experience. We're in Northamptonshire and were really encouraged because of fellow boaters we spoke to last year (we're volunteer lock keepers at Stoke Bruerne on the grand union). We're still very green though, last year was the first year we've done anything on the canal, we rented a boat for 2 weeks and started lock keeping. Good luck 🙂

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