8 Ways to Check Out a Used Boat

What to Look For When Buying a Used Boat

If you are thinking about buying a used boat, then you are also thinking about investing tens of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly even more.  Before you write that check, you need to do some other “checking” first. For the financial big picture, look at this article.  But here are the eight items we suggest you take a hard look at.

  • BOAT TYPE:  You need to start with the very basics, and that means buying the right boat for your needs.  What kind of boating do you want to do, where, under what weather conditions, on what kind of water, etc.?  Of course, these are questions only you can answer, but you need to think long and hard about the type of boat you are going to buy.  You want to avoid buying the wrong type of boat, only to discover you have to sell it, or trade it off, to get the kind of boat you should have purchased in the first place.  The good news is there are all kinds of good people who can help you with this, including boat dealers. But your best source is your fellow boaters. Ask a lot of questions and then ask some more.  Also, before you buy your final selection, consider a charter or rental.  Go boating with it for a few days to see how it performs.  As you go through selection this process, you will develop solid confidence in your final decision.  

  • REPUTATION:  Most boat purchases are made from boat dealers, and boat dealers, like car or other kinds of dealers, have reputations.  Be sure to check out the reputation of any boat dealer you are thinking of using. You need their general reputation, which you might be able to check online.  But a better source will be from your fellow mariners in the area. And you also want to know about their openness. Are they open and very willing to let you completely inspect and evaluate their boat or boats, including using help, like engine mechanics and marine surveyors?  If you don’t get this open attitude, consider looking elsewhere.

If you are thinking of buying from a private person, reputation will probably not be available, but if they are not open to a full inspection of their boat, it might be time to move on.

  • ENGINE:  The engine’s overall condition is probably your biggest buying concern.  And frankly, unless you are an engine mechanic yourself, you should get the help of someone who is.  There is that much involved. You want to be sure the engine is in solid shape, including overall condition, electronics, belts, batteries and accessories like starter, alternator, etc.  Like modern car engines, marine engines can be tested via computer hookup.

But the most important mechanical test will be cylinder compression.  This single test has been recognized for decades as the best possible test of the internal mechanical health of an engine.  You want all cylinders to have nearly the same compression, like within 10% +/- of each other. Uneven compression is a strong indication of problems with some cylinders, and an indication of future problems as well.  Obviously, you will want to give the engine a sea test, under a variety of speeds, wave action, and other conditions. Have your mechanic along for the ride.

While you are at it, look over the props and shafts.  You will want to make sure the props do not have bent blades or nicks.  The shafts should be straight and free from any visible damage. When out on a sea trial, try to detect any vibrations coming from the drive train.

  • FUEL SYSTEM:  To safeguard your engine and its performance, we also strongly suggest a complete review of the fuel system.  That starts with an inspection of the fuel tank, both outside and inside if the tank is large enough to have inspection ports.  Include a look at the integrity of all fuel lines to all engines, and check the fuel filters for possible replacement. Does the fuel system include water/fuel separators?  If not, this is something you will want to install if you buy. No boat should be without them, as they are vital for engine protection.

  • HULL:  The hull is an easier check than the engine.  Fiberglass is a tough and highly durable product.  But, it can be breached, and that is the most important item to check, in other words, a past hull penetration.  These events are rare but can happen, but they can also be completely repaired if done properly. These will probably not be visible on the outside but are more detectable by looking inside the hull.  Here again, because of the importance, we recommend using a marine surveyor. Your objective is to make sure that any serious repairs were done correctly, and that the hull is structurally sound.

Where ordinary wear and tear is concerned, we all know that in docking, mooring with other boats, taking boats in and out of the water, and on and off trailers, all boats get a little or a lot dinged up.   The only questions are how much wear is there, how much are you willing to accept, what does it cost to repair, and how does it affect the price of the boat.

Be on the lookout for osmotic blisters in the fiberglass.  Fiberglass is laid down in layers, with gel coat applied on the outside surface.  Some people are surprised to learn that, through osmosis, water can get between layers, and get caught there.  These show up as blisters, bulges, or bubbles which are squishy under pressure. They are a sure sign of trapped water.  They can be repaired but can be costly. Just make sure you check thoroughly, so you don’t have some later surprises.

One mandatory check is of the bottom of the hull itself, and if the boat has been at a dock, moored or otherwise stored in the water, a hauled-out is called for.  You want to check for hull maintenance, especially in a salt water environment. All kinds of grime and living organisms can accumulate. That is also true for fresh-water boats where mud, grime, moss, and algae can build up.  Hulls can be cleaned up, but if the maintenance has been neglected, you could be in for a fairly major project. Just make sure you are willing to accept the hull you are getting.

  • ELECTRONICS/RADIOS:  With electronics, there is a lot to check.  You want to test all the inside circuitry including interior lights and outlets, navigation lights, bilge and other pumps, deck lights and anything electric.  Check any navigational systems to make sure they are working. While on your sea run, use the VHF radio over a long distance to check its performance. When you are out there, pay special attention to the instrument panel.  Are all the instruments working, and are they responding to the various engine, speed and other changes?
  • SAILBOAT CHECKS (RIGGING/SAILS):  With sailboats, all the same checks 1 to 6 above apply, but there is one other check you have to do, and that is standing rigging and sails.  All masts, booms, stays, shrouds, winches, halyards, sheets and lines need inspection. It is much easier to check rigging if it is down, i.e., the sailboat is in storage.  But to be thorough, it should also be put up to check how well it works. If the rigging is already up, you should use a bosom’s chair or climbing harness to check the upper rigging.  Sails are usually not a problem, but you want to look them over, just to make sure they are fairly new and serviceable and don’t need costly repairs. The most thorough way to check; simply lay them on a large table.
  • CLEAR LEGAL TITLE:  As we said earlier, buying a boat involves tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.  To protect yourself and your investment, there is one final check to make, and that is the title to the boat.  Before you write that big check, you need to make absolutely sure of two things. First, make sure you are buying from the legal owner or owners of the boat.  All states now require that boats have titles just like motor vehicles. Check thoroughly. Secondly, you want to make sure there are no liens or debts against the boat.  If there are any liens, you want to make sure the debt is fully paid off or satisfied before you write your check. If you have any concerns at all, you might want to run it by your attorney.  A title check by a lawyer will be inexpensive, and well worth the cost to prevent possible later headaches or nasty money losses.

Buying a boat is a big investment, and we just hope the above suggestions will help you get the boat you want, in the condition you want, and for the right price.  The allure of the water is strong, and sometimes we can move too fast finding a boat just to get us out there. But by investing a little time, money and effort, we hope following these steps will get you there, and with no lingering “buyer’s remorse.”

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