I,ve only ever had one survey and like you did not know what to expect. Our boat is a wooden Hillyard so a survey i felt was essential. I came into contact with aman called John Lilley who as it happened was not only a surveyer but also a Hillyard expert. I must admit I thought the price of the survey was expensive but that was before i understood the work involved. John did the survey and took the time to show mw every inch of the boat. He was at the boat all day and didnt stop once, and i mean that. he not only showed me what had to be done, he also gave advice on how to do it. the written report which came 48hrs later was 33 pages long and excellent. it has been our working document. there was some bad news but also plenty of good. in my experience it was money well spent.
No. I've had two surveys and they were basically both good. Its true that they tend to write up very bland 'cover-your-arse' stuff (because they can get sued if they miss something) but over the phone they will usually tell you what you want to know. I know of some surveyors who seem to have more issues with the design (and sometimes build) of the boat than the condition, which is what your paying him for.
I've just had a survey and with further visits it has cost over £1,100. However, the one bit of really bad news (water in the long keel ballast voids, but hull otherwise very sound) enabled me to negotiate over 40% off of the price I had initially agreed at £29,000. OK I may have some serious work to do, but otherwise the boats excellent and when I've finished will be just what I want.
Bad news can turn into good (I hope!).
Overall I'm happy.
I don't know where you are but if in the south east I can recommend R.D.Johnson & co (Details are in the directory on this site) He did a very comprehensive survey for me, which had some bad news, but not too much, and enabled me to negotiate a real saving on the cost of the boat. Survey report was a well laid out 60 page book, all day was spent collecting the information...really excellent work
I used Anthony Byrde a couple of years ago and he saved me from an expensive mistake with a Pegasus 800--the thing was riddled with osmosis. Beware of a vendor saying he knows an excellent surveyor. I recently bought a Sigma 33 surveyed by Paul Stevens on the east coast. He made two visits and a list of essential repairs(minor). The money is always well spent. Get a recommendation from someone who knows one or ring the YMDSA. There may be good surveyors who are not members but if you're green its a safe bet you won't get a dud.
The art lies in briefing the surveyor. Uncontrolled, you will receive pages of descriptive narrative about the number of drawers and berths and .... useless!
You want a hull (including keels and rudder / steering) and rig survey - in depth. Nothing else. Few surveyors will touch the engine - they would be liable for any defect found after they had run it. Clearly they cannot dismantle any equipment. If you make an offer on the boat make it subject to a satisfactory in-water engine test.
Make sure the report seeks out: any delamination in the hull or between the bulkheads and hull, or furniture - these are signs of potential structural failure: the engine bed and stern gear mountings: keel bolts and the keel / hull joint are vital (especially if the boat regularly takes the ground)- closely inspect the leading edge of the keel (s) - if the boat has had an impact below the waterline this is where it could show: the rudder mountings and steering connections: any suspcious dampness in any part of the hull - be prepared to be told that the rudder is full of water - many are - this could be serious if there is movement about the stock or the rudder is more than about 15 years old (the tangs within the rudder could be breaking down which could lead to catastrophic loss of steering at any time!) Damp rudders, however, can last many years: rig condition (most surveyors will not climb the rig -insurance problems again!) and the state of the chainplates if these can be seen and inspected, but especially any signs of deterioration in the rig/deck joint.
This is not an exhaustive list but these are core issues on which I would want a clear opinion - OK/ dubious / shot .
Finally, regard electrical equipment and other perishable accessories as dead and you will not be disappointed.